Angelique Kerber’s redemption tour continues as she raced to a straight-sets victory over Barbora Strycova to reach the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday night.
Kerber needed just 59 minutes to speed past Strycova, who was a runner-up in Dubai two years ago, to set up a clash with former champion Sara Errani.
The sixth-seeded Kerber, who struggled with form last season, has come out of the blocks firing in 2018 to return to the top-10. She has compiled a 13-2 win-loss record so far this year, winning the title in Sydney and reaching the Australian Open semi-finals.
The German took advantage of some poor serving from Strycova, who landed just 47 per cent of her first serves in and double-faulted six times.
“I think I was trying to play my game. I think it was a little bit different to play night than during the day because I was practicing yesterday night, but it was still a little bit different on court with the lights and everything,” said the two-time Grand Slam champion.
“I think I played a good match. I played a solid match. It’s always tough to play against her. You never know what’s happen. She’s always a fighter. But I’m happy to won the match in two sets.”
Errani, who won the title in Dubai in 2016 against Strycova in the final, is down to No. 143 in the rankings and had to make it through three qualifying rounds before making the main draw this week. She is the lowest ranked player in the tournament and served a two-month doping suspension last year after testing positive for the banned substance letrozole.
“I’m not looking against who I’m playing. I try really focusing on my game. Of course, I know against who I’m playing. But at the end she had a great matches here. I think she played qualies, as well,” said Kerber, looking ahead to her next round.
“I will just try to play another good match, playing like I played the last weeks. This is more my focus, and not against who I’m playing.”
The last match of the day saw fifth-seeded Caroline Garcia overcome former French Open runner-up Lucie Safarova 6-3, 7-5 to set-up a second round against Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova.
For me personally, sitting in the stands watching a tennis match feels like being at the theatre.
The grand entrances, the drama, the momentum swings… the upset that no one saw coming.
The more you know about the characters on court, the more connected you feel to the action. The players’ mannerisms and reactions are often just important as how they’re hitting the ball.
Every fist pump and scream sends a message to the opponent, and sometimes it’s masking how a competitor really feels inside.
“I definitely think there’s an element of acting on court. I think there is a good old saying of ‘fake it till you make it’. I think that definitely applies to some days more than others obviously,” Johanna Konta said when I asked her if she often makes a conscious effort to appear more confident on court.
“We are human, every player out there. We’re not going to feel great every single day. We’re not always going to play great. Those days where you’re not playing your best, you do put on a persona and you do try to fight your way through those days, try to find the best level you can on that day.
“I mean, I always look to be as positive as I can, yeah, as happy as I can on court.”
It’s the best kind of theatre, I tell you!
TEACHING NAOMI OSAKA
Japan’s Naomi Osaka is quite the character in press conference and her first one in Dubai was no exception.
She was asked about her new coach Sascha Bajin, whom she started working with this season, and whether she considers herself a good pupil.
“I learn very quickly, but I also forget very quickly,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s like it goes through one ear and out the other. I sort of have to practice a lot from my brain to say, ‘Okay, this is something you have to do forever now’.”
That certainly must be fun for Bajin!
When Garbine Muguruza was a little girl, she dreamt of winning Wimbledon. She grew up fantasising about winning Grand Slams, playing on the biggest stages in tennis and lifting the most prestigious trophies.
At 22, the Spaniard claimed her first major, upsetting Serena Williams to win the French Open. A year later, she beat Venus Williams to triumph at Wimbledon.
Beating the Williams sisters to win your first two Slams – success doesn’t get more legitimate than that.
But between Muguruza’s flashes of brilliance, there came periods of indifference. Wimbledon was just her fourth career title. She often admitted that stepping up for the smaller tournaments has not been as easy as finding the motivation for the Grand Slams, and her results certainly reflected that.
Consistency had been her Achilles’ heel but that has slowly been changing.
Last season, she won Cincinnati – her fifth career trophy – before making the semis in Tokyo and quarters in Wuhan. Muguruza had a rough start to 2018, struggling with a leg injury but she made a run to the Doha final last week.
The world No. 3 believes she is finally finding the correct formula to approach each tournament with the right amount of focus and drive.
“I think I’m trying. I think I improved that a lot,” Muguruza told reporters in Dubai on Tuesday.
“When you’re younger, you’re always dreaming about winning Grand Slams. You don’t feel that excited when it’s not Wimbledon. But it’s normal. Every player has that.
“Once you are in a Grand Slam, you’re like, ‘Okay this is history’. I learned with the years that all the WTA events are important. We have even huge tournaments.
“It is the key also to be in the top spots because you need to perform constantly good, constantly moving forward in the big tournaments. Only with magic and few tournaments a year, it’s tough to be in this spot.”
Muguruza’s increased motivation was rewarded last fall when she rose to the No. 1 ranking for the first time. She spent just four weeks there before she was replaced by Simona Halep in October.
The top spot is in play almost each week on the women’s tour at the moment and Muguruza knows there is an opportunity to get back there – although she isn’t obsessing over it.
“It is important. I always have it in my mind, to be able to fight for that. I remember it was a great feeling to be there, even though it’s tough. But I want to fight for that. I know it’s the hardest one, but… I’m going to be there, try to,” said the Venezuelan-born Spaniard.
Muguruza says last year she was more aware of the potential switches at the top of the rankings (the top spot swapped hands seven times last year). She is trying to pay less attention to it this time around.
She confesses being at the very top is a different feeling.
“It’s just you realise a lot of things when you’re there. You’re like, okay, I’m here, I can’t go more up, all I can do is go down. There’s all these girls that want my spot, I have to defend it. You have this, like, alarm all the time,” she explains.
Muguruza begins her Dubai campaign on Wednesday against American teenager Catherine “CiCi” Bellis in the second round.
Not long ago, Muguruza was the young up-and-comer on tour, looking to challenge the veterans. Now she feels the tables are turning, even though she is only 24.
“I’m starting to see I’m not that young,” she joked when asked which one of the younger players she sees winning a Grand Slam first.
“I remember at the Australian Open, I’m looking at the draw, especially Australian Open, I don’t know why I always have this feeling in that swing, I’m seeing these girls, I’m like, ‘Who is this?’ They’re playing really good. I’m starting to feel of the change a little bit.
“The one that I’ve been more seeing was CiCi Bellis. She’s playing all these tournaments and she’s doing good.”
At 18, Bellis is the youngest in the world’s top-50. She reached the quarters in Dubai last year and defeated Australian Open semi-finalist Elise Mertens in her opener on Tuesday.
She is looking forward to challenging herself against the third-ranked Muguruza.
“I’ve never played her before. It’s definitely going to be a new experience for me. It will be fun,” said Bellis.
“She’s an unbelievable player. Yeah, she’s been at the top of the game for a while now. It will be great for me just to see where my game lines up against another one of the top players. Just try to enjoy it. I’m having a lot of fun out here.”