Angelique Kerber defended a title for the first time in her career on Sunday and picked up her first trophy since hoisting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the Australian Open in January with a hard-fought run in Stuttgart.
After Kerber won her maiden grand slam title in Melbourne three months ago, with a stunning victory over Serena Williams in the final, murmurs of a slump quickly began to echo when she followed that up with opening round exits in Doha and Indian Wells. Was this going to be another case of a WTA first-time slam champion crumbling under the pressure of a breakthrough moment?
Kerber didn’t give sceptics much time to dwell on that. She picked up her form with a semi-final showing in Miami – where she fell to an in-form Victoria Azarenka. She was doing well in her title defence campaign in Charleston but had to retire during her semifinal with Sloane Stephens as she struggled with a viral illness before heading to Stuttgart and grabbing her second consecutive title there.
Her journey in the German tournament was highlighted by a smooth victory over the always-tricky world No. 11 Carla Suarez Navarro, and a three-set battle with world No. 7 Petra Kvitova. Having the added pressure of trying to defend a title, and getting comfortable with her position amongst the world’s top-three, Kerber rose above it all and showed us why we should think twice before even considering casting her as a one slam wonder.
Kerber went on a tear last year, winning four Premier titles and consistency wasn’t really an issue except for in the majors.
This year, the German solved the grand slam puzzle and all she had to do was take a brief step back, acknowledge the magnitude of what she accomplished in Melbourne before getting back into the swing of things and finding the consistency that earned her a place at the WTA Finals in Singapore at the end of last season.
She mentally flopped in Singapore – needed to only win one set to advance from the group stage to the semi-finals yet faltered – but she learned her lesson and her turnaround has been remarkable.
It is that ability to rebound that is her greatest asset – be it mid-match or mid-season – and it is why her brief post-Melbourne slump was no real cause for concern.
The good thing about Kerber’s playing style is that it is not a high-risk, hit-or-miss kind of game. While she is amping up her aggression, running down balls and never giving up remains her bread and butter. So even if she’s not feeling great, she can still rely on her fitness and attitude to get through matches.
Unlike someone like Kvitova who often struggled to manage her power game of tiny margins to put together a string of back-to-back good results. Kerber is now deservedly at the top of the Road to Singapore standings (2016 race) but has Victoria Azarenka breathing down her neck.
Add world No. 1 Serena (No. 3 in the race) to the mix, and you have a very strong top trio in the year-to-date standings, posing as the ones to beat in Madrid, Rome and the French Open.
In the WTA rankings, Williams, with 8,625 points, is still miles ahead of second-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska (5,775) and third-ranked Kerber (5,740). But one bad Premier Mandatory event and one poor major can put Williams in trouble, especially with the chasing pack really gathering steam.
The clay season has barely started and it’s already shaping up to be one of the most exciting we’ve had in a long time and we’ll learn more when everyone returns to action in Madrid next week.
Here’s hoping Williams didn’t get too comfortable making those daily tacos on Snapchat and is ready to compete once again.
Rafael Nadal's last 10 finals have come on three different continents.
Rafael Nadal equalled Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas’s record of 49 clay-court titles with his ninth Barcelona Open after overcoming defending champion Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-5 on Sunday.
Fresh from winning the Monte Carlo Masters last week, Nadal has now won his opening 10 matches of the European clay-court season ahead of his quest to land a record 10th French Open in June.
Nishikori was left to rue a series of missed break-point opportunities as the Japanese’s 14-match winning streak in Barcelona came to an end.
Nishikori had made the most of shock Nadal defeats to claim the title in the past two years, but despite some stiff resistence in just over two hours on court he slipped to a ninth defeat in 10 matches against the 14-time Grand Slam champion.
Nishikori started brightly, but produced an error-strewn game to hand Nadal the early break for 3-1 in the first set.