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Sofia Kenin makes a backhand return to Garbine Muguruza during the Australian Open final Saturday at the Australian Open in Melbourne. / AP photo by Lee Jin-man

MELBOURNE, Australia — Back in 1987, 11 years before new Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin was born, her parents left Moscow for New York City, eager to escape the Soviet Union and live in the United States because, as her father, Alex, put it: "You want to see the world. You want a better future for your kids."

Alex took English classes and attended computer school during the day; he drove for a car service at night, straining to understand the dispatcher's radioed instructions.

"It was very tough," he said, "but it's amazing the things you do when you need to survive."

Just before Sofia was born, the family briefly returned to Russia so Grandma and other relatives could help with the baby. A few months later, the Kenins went back to New York. Eventually, they settled in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and it was in the driveway of their home there that Sofia, at age 3 1/2, found her calling.

"I wasn't into any other toys. I always liked to play with balls and with a racket. So my dad said, 'Let's go try it and play.' Obviously I had great hand-eye coordination. I saw I was really different than other players," said the 21-year-old Kenin, a Champagne flute an arm's length away as she spoke with a small group of reporters after Saturday had turned to Sunday at Melbourne Park.

"And people said, 'You know, she's really special. Something about her.' And look where I am."

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Sofia Kenin of the United States waves as she walks onto the court at Rod Laver Arena for her match against Spain's Garbine Muguruza in the women's final Saturday at the Australian Open in Melbourne. / AP photo by Lee Jin-man

Indeed, look at where, and who, she is: owner of a Grand Slam trophy and expected to be No. 7 — which will make her the highest U.S. woman currently — when the WTA rankings are released Monday.

Kenin won the last four games of Saturday's women's singles final at Rod Laver Arena with some gutsy play at the most crucial moments, beating two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

One key sequence decided the outcome. Kenin faced three break points while serving at 2-all, love-40 in the third set. All she did was conjure up an ace and four point-ending groundstrokes on exchanges that all lasted at least 11 shots.

"She pulled out something unbelievable," said Alex Kenin, who is his daughter's coach and calls her "Sonya," the Russian nickname for Sofia.

In all, Kenin converted five of six break points and erased 10 of Muguruza's 12.

"Especially in the important moments, I think," Muguruza said, "she came out with winners."

The 26-year-old Spaniard, who won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon the year after that, said she thought Kenin handled the emotions of a major final debut well and didn't seem to show any jitters. Alex Kenin, though, said he could tell earlier in the day his daughter was nervous because he saw "tears in her eyes" and she was "trying to hold it back."

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Sofia Kenin, right, holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Garbine Muguruza, left, in the women's singles final at the Australian Open on Saturday in Melbourne. / AP photo by Andy Brownbill

The victory made Kenin the youngest Australian Open champion since 2008, when Maria Sharapova was 20. Kenin also will be the youngest American to make her top-10 rankings debut since Serena Williams was 20 in 2002.

It was a win over Williams in the third round of the 2019 French Open, Kenin's deepest run at a Grand Slam tournament until this one, that helped provide a boost that keeps propelling her forward. She won her first three tour-level titles last season and cracked the top 20 in the rankings.

This, though, is entirely new territory.

Kenin might have been overlooked by some before, when younger Americans such as 15-year-old Coco Gauff and 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova were making deep runs at majors and gaining all the attention. Other players, though, knew what the 5-foot-7 Kenin could do.

And so, certainly, did she. She proved it to the world by coming back from a set down to eliminate Gauff in the fourth round; by erasing a total of four set points while getting past current No. 1 and reigning French Open champion Ash Barty in the semifinals; by ignoring that she was "absolutely devastated" after losing the opening set against Muguruza, a former No. 1.

In that pivotal spot in the third set Saturday, she summoned some more courage.

"I knew I had to take my chance," Kenin said. "I had to be brave."

Muguruza was visited by a trainer after the second set, and her movement wasn't ideal down the stretch. Nor was her serving: She double-faulted eight times, including three in the last game, one on championship point.

"A little bit lack of energy," she said.

That wasn't the case for Kenin, who makes her mood obvious at all times.

Her forehands and backhands are reliable, her drop shots and lobs are terrific, her ball retrieval is top class, but none of those are what she considers her best attribute on a tennis court.

"The fight in me," she said. "I feel like that's something you can't teach. I feel like you've got to have that. You've got to have that belief and the passion."

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Sofia Kenin reacts after winning a point against Garbine Muguruza during the women's final Saturday at the Australian Open in Melbourne. / AP photo by Dita Alangkara

She often refers to Williams as her idol (as so many tennis players today do), but Kenin also said she "copied a few people" for various aspects of her playing style.

"I've looked up to Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova," Kenin said of two others from Russia whose potential as youth players took them to Florida to train. "I followed their matches when I was little. I feel like I got the 'feisty.' I saw what it's like.

"Yeah, I feel like that definitely helped me. I have part of the Russian stuff inside me, (the) fight and fierce that I have. Trying just to be confident, do what I do best," she said, before adding: "And thank you to my parents for giving me the American dream."

That racket Kenin was swinging — and sometimes dropping, even kicking, out of frustration after bad points — against Muguruza?

It was painted red, white and blue.

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