NERVOUS AND EDGY Sofia Kenin surrendered her grip on the Australian Open title and then admitted: I couldn’t handle the pressure.
The American, who beat Spaniard Garbine Muguruza in last year’s final to mark a maiden Slam, claimed she buckled under the expectation of being the defending champion at Melbourne Park.
The fourth seed was bundled out of the Margaret Court Arena exit door following a 6-3 6-2 shock win by world No.65 Kaia Kanepi from Estonia.
Kenin, 22, made 22 unforced errors and three double faults as she produced the worst defence by a female singles champion since compatriot Jennifer Capriati lost in the first round in 2003.
Unseeded Kanepi, who will contest Croatian No.28 seed Donna Vekic in the third round, hit 22 winners to Kenin’s 10 and saved all seven breaks points faced in 64 minutes.
An emotional Kenin – who broke down in tears – said: “I felt like I couldn't find my rhythm. I was obviously way too nervous.
“She came up with some good shots. She obviously had a good plan against me. I just couldn’t execute my shots.
“I guess it’s the outside pressure. I haven’t felt my game for, like, I don’t know how long.
“Since last year I won, I’ve felt everyone is kind of expecting me to do that. It’s obviously tough.
“My head wasn't there. I’m not going to take any credit away from her. She played really well at those good points.
“I had chances. I just couldn’t take it. The nerves big-time got to me.
“Everyone was always asking me. Do you see yourself getting there and winning again? Obviously I said yes. But with the way I’m playing, no.
“I felt like I’m not there 100% physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels really off obviously. It's not good.
“I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure. I’m not obviously used to this. Right now I’ve got to figure out how to play at that level that I played at.
“I didn’t put this much pressure on myself as this year. This year I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
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There were no major exit dramas for the world No.1 Ash Barty but enough thrills and spills to worry the blood pressure of the home crowd.
Barty, who lost in the Aussie Open semi-finals to Kenin 13 months ago, was forced into a tie-breaker against fellow Australian Daria Gavrilova despite being 5-2 up and cruising in the second set.
The 24-year-old, who was absent from the Tour for almost a year, faced a set point but saved that before prevailing 6-1 7-6 on the Rod Laver Arena.
Barty will now play Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova in round three as she continues her quest to end the home country’s 43-year wait for another women’s champion.
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