It’s been a little over a year since Angelique Kerber shook the tennis order and defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open final to become the first German woman since Steffi Graf to win a grand slam singles title.
She then reached the Wimbledon final, won Olympic silver, won the US Open then took the No1 spot from Williams – all this happened within a nine-month period.
Since becoming world No1 last September, she has accumulated a modest 13-8 win-loss record, including a 4-4 stretch so far in 2017.
The 29-year-old, who is the top seed in Dubai this week but is now down to No2 in the world behind Williams, is yet to find her game this season but it’s worth noting that all of her defeats came against solid opponents.
In the quarter-finals in Brisbane during the first week of the year, Kerber lost to Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian who had taken out Williams at the Olympics in Rio.
She fell to talented Russian teen Daria Kasatkina in both Sydney and Doha, and was blown off the court by American Coco Vandeweghe in the Australian Open fourth round. Vandeweghe eventually lost in the semi-finals to Venus Williams.
Kerber acknowledges she has not had the best of starts to the season, but is not hitting the panic button just yet.
“My reaction was actually the same, it was not a big deal or not a big drama,” Kerber told Sport360 of her Australian Open exit to Vandeweghe.
“That was the first time I was the top seed (at a major), defending grand slam champion and this is what you have to get used to also. It’s a really long process.
“It’s a new situation, new commitments, new challenges. When I went home, I think when I recognised everything that happened there, I realised that was a really important trip for me.”
The Poland-resident considers Melbourne to be a valuable learning experience, and admits adjusting to her new status as a top player and grand slam champion remains a work in progress.
“I think to get used to everything around, learning to focus, this is what I really would like to reach. And not doing things too complicated, with the things around… that was the biggest lesson,” she explains.
It’s only natural for Kerber to be saying those things. Last year changed a lot for her. Her popularity shot through the roof back in Germany – a country that had legends like Steffi Graf and Boris Becker in the past but where the interest in tennis has declined since those legends retired.
“I think there are a few reasons,” Kerber says of the decreasing attention directed to the sport back home.
“First of all Germany wasn’t showing a lot of tennis on TV, that’s why the interest stopped a bit. Then of course after Steffi and Boris, it was so huge that nobody came after, so there was a big hole. Soccer started getting bigger and bigger, so that’s what changed a bit. But hopefully that now, and also (Sascha) Zverev, it’s getting back a bit better.”
Kerber lost her No1 ranking to Serena after the American beat her sister Venus in the Australian Open final last month.
At 35 and 36, Serena and Venus rebuffed the theory that a new generation was ready to take over and Kerber is in awe of both of them. She didn’t watch the whole final but says she watched the first few games.
“It’s unbelievable – big respect for both of them. They are really both champions. They put so much passion in the sport. With all the ups and downs they also had in their careers, for me it was really an honour to watch the few games. It’s just incredible how they improved and what they’ve done for tennis,” said Kerber of the American sisters, who have won a combined 30 grand slam singles trophies between them.
You’d think that Kerber would be motivated to hunt Serena once again and reclaim the top spot but that is not the priority on the German’s mind.
She says she won’t be following the different scenarios that can take her back to the summit, and that her coach, Torben Beltz, is not occupying himself by counting ranking points and analysing No1 possibilities. Kerber may not seek out the information but she knows if she’s close to getting to the top once again – she can actually become No1 if she wins Dubai this week – someone is bound to let her know.
“I think maybe if it’s the same situation as in Cincinnati (where she was one win away from No1), everybody will be asking me about it,” said Kerber.
“I think this will come or not, but for me it’s not the biggest thing. Of course it’s great to be the No1, but if you play good and stay consistent, you will be one day the No1. So for me it’s not the biggest goal now. It’s more playing well, winning again good matches. It’s just a number before my name, let’s see if I can get the number again but of course it’s a hard way again.”
Kerber is a player who is constantly chasing improvement – it is why she managed to finally fufil her grand slam dreams so late in her career and why she is the oldest first-time No1.
Is there one thing she wishes she can improve dramatically in her game?
“Maybe to serve with 200km/hr,” she says with a laugh.
She also hopes to improve her record in Dubai, where she has won just one match in four appearances in the past.
Kerber does not know why she hasn’t done well here on her previous visits but feels she is only one or two matches away from finding her best form once again.
“I’m practicing really well, so I think the thing is to make the transfer from the practice to the matches,” she told reporters during All Access Hour in Dubai on Sunday.
“That’s what I have to get. I think it’s just one or two matches that can change it because I’m feeling good. I wasn’t feeling well last week in Doha, I wasn’t able to play my best because my body was not 100 per cent. But on the practice courts I’m playing well.”
On Serena Williams
I think Serena is really a respectful person and it’s an honour to play against her. She won everything, she’s a legend, she’s a big champion. She’s fair play and that’s why she is where she is.
On the rising status of young German Sascha Zverev (ranked No18 on the ATP)
I think because he’s really young and he’s already beating the best players in the world. He also has the advantage that his brother (Mischa) was playing and he was travelling with him. I remember him when he was really young and he was always with Mischa at tournaments, I think that’s a big advantage because he knows what happens at tournaments, the parents know, Mischa knows… he has big talent and everybody knows. I’m sure he’ll have big success in the future, I think everybody knows that.
On the WTA Middle East swing in Doha and Dubai
It’s unique here because you come a few days early, you know you have great weather, you’re practicing well, you have a lot of courts and get ready for these two tournaments then go ready to Indian Wells and Miami.
On the impact of her winning the Australian Open last year
It was really big in Germany that I was the first one after Steffi Graf to win a grand slam and I was in all the newspapers and TV. From the day I got back after Melbourne it started getting a little bit bigger.
Tennis can often be massively rewarding for the talented few out there but sometimes the champions do not get a chance to celebrate their success and Karolina Pliskova knows that feeling all too well.
The Czech world No3 on Saturday wrapped up a tremendous title triumph at the Qatar Total Open in Doha but was already in Dubai barely 20 hours later talking to reporters about her next tournament.
The 24-year-old endured a brutal week in the Qatari capital that was swept by thunderstorms throughout the entire tournament and forced players to contest more than one match in one day.
It was all even more gruelling for Pliskova considering she had arrived late in Doha after helping her Czech team beat Spain in Fed Cup the previous weekend in Ostrava.
“It was very difficult especially with the Fed Cup weekend I had. I wasn’t sure about my tennis (at the beginning of the week in Doha) because I didn’t practice much and we played Fed Cup indoors and this was outside, so everything was a bit different,” the Dubai No2 seed said on Sunday.
“The conditions there were really tough the whole week so I didn’t practice much before the matches. I’m just happy. I played four matches in three days so it was a special week definitely and I think in the end I was even playing good tennis in the finals.”
The 2015 Dubai runner-up immediately switched her focus to the action at the Aviation Club this week, where the faster courts suit her game even better than Doha.
“I just got here (to Dubai). Last night I was trying to enjoy the title I won and today I’m starting a new tournament so this is the last time I’m talking about my trophy. I just want to prepare again for this tournament, it’s going to be different, new balls, new players here, big draw, so one just has to be ready,” she said.
Pliskova has elevated her game dramatically within the past six months – a period in which she won the Cincinnati title, reached the US Open final and made her WTA Finals debut in Singapore.
She is the only player to have captured two titles so far this season, having also scooped the trophy in Brisbane to start the year, and has a target on her back as the in-form player of the moment.
“I’m beating players which I haven’t beaten in the past, especially this week I beat two of them (Caroline Wozniacki in the Doha final, and Dominika Cibulkova in the semis). There are only one or two players left which I haven’t beaten yet.
“I think anything is possible and with my game I have big opportunities to beat those players, I just have to play well, stay aggressive, serve well and then I have the chance to beat anyone.”
Asked to name the players she hasn’t beaten yet, Pliskova said: “Obviously Agnieszka Radwanska, she will be the next one I want to beat. I played Maria Sharapova once, that was just one meeting, and I think against Ekaterina Makarova I don’t have a good record.”
Pliskova could meet Radwanska in the semi-finals in Dubai should they make it through their first three matches.
The Polish No4 seed won Dubai in 2012 and is hoping for a repeat success this week.
“I hope I can show good tennis here and get some good results. I think the most important thing is I’m healthy and I just feel I can play my best here,” said Radwanska.
It’s no secret that the people players choose to surround themselves with often play the biggest role in their success.
It could be a coach, a friend, a family member, an agent, a psychologist, or all or none of the above that make the difference for a player at any given week and it’s quite interesting to hear from the pros about the main influences in their day-to-day life.
For Ons Jabeur, it is her fellow Tunisian and former world No75 Selima Sfar that has been a positive presence in her life recently.
The two are good friends and sometimes hit together when they are both in Doha, where Jabeur’s husband resides and where Sfar spends a significant amount of time due to her beIN Sports commentating duties.
Sfar is the only Arab woman to ever crack the top-100 and Jabeur is looking to follow suit.
The 22-year-old North African joked the other day that Sfar has been telling her that she’s her good luck charm considering they practiced together for a week before Jabeur made the quarter-finals in Taipei earlier this month, and they did so again in the build-up to Dubai, where she has qualified and now reached the second round.
“She told me ‘You see, every time you practice with me you do well’. And I’m like ‘okay, Selima’. She keeps telling me she’s ‘mabrouka’ (good luck charm). Mabrouka is a name, I told her ‘no, your name is Selima’,” laughed Jabeur.
“She’s sweet and she’s helped me a lot, with her energy, how she tries to be positive with everything. She’s from the same country as me and it’s amazing to have her by my side.”
For someone like Karolina Pliskova, having her twin sister Kristyna on tour has been a big advantage. She spoke to reporters on Sunday about their relationship.
Karolina is ranked No3 in the world is the more successful one of the pair, but Kristyna is actually on the rise and is up to No58 in the world.
On Saturday in Doha after Karolina won the title, a reporter asked her how she felt about being unseeded and facing a tough opener in Dubai against Roberta Vinci. Karolina quickly pointed out that it was her sister who is facing the Italian, not her.
“Sometimes it’s tough because people are still confusing us both, they still don’t know which one is which, after so many years I’m still surprised but unfortunately that’s the case,” said Karolina with a smile.
“I think on one hand it’s definitely an advantage to have someone like this on the tour. Since now two or three years we haven’t met much at tournaments but she’s moving up the rankings and we’re going to have more and more tournaments in common. Maybe in the future we can even start to play doubles again.
“On the other hand always for one of us it’s not an advantage to have someone – let’s say like it is for her now – when someone is winning more than the other, that’s tough.”
Does she have any tips on how people can differentiate between them?
“We have different tattoos. On court it’s easy, she’s lefty and I’m right-handed, but still people can’t tell us apart on court. I don’t know what more we can do to help you,” the Czech added laughing. “We have different hair. Someone who is with us more often can tell us apart.”
And do they share twin telepathy?
“A little bit but I don’t feel right now what she’s doing. But most of the time we say the same things in one moment, exactly the same words or sentences. We have the same talking, and same thinking. There’s always something between twins,” she explains.