Angelique Kerber gets a bum rap: she pushes the ball … Her serve is weak. But no matter the chiding the German gets, she did what was considered near impossible today in the quarterfinals of The Australian Open. She defeated Victoria Azarenka, 6-3 7-5, for the first time in eight meetings sending the odds-on favorite packing.
Kerber’s thrill of victory was clearly evident, as she addressed fans inside Rod Laver Arena. She shook with excitement, as if having accomplished something beyond her capabilities. She had wanted to play as if she was practicing, where balls fly from her racquet with ease — a dream scenario even club players imagine. “I believed I could do it,” Kerber said, still breathing heavily from the last point of the match.
But it was the last five games of the match that changed the course of her career.
Down a set, Azarenka was poised to go the distance as she served for the second up 40-0 at 5-2. Kerber protested mightily, her racquet, foot speed, anticipation and go-for-broke attitude and shot-making leading her way home while she ran off the last five games.
“I was playing my game from the first point,” Kerber told the press, as reported by the Australian Open. “Also when I was down 2-5 I was actually playing more aggressive on this time. I think that was key.”
Kerber, who is seeded number-seven to Azarenka’s number fourteen, sent an aggressive message to her opponent early in the match. She wasn’t going to get pushed around by Azarenka’s pace, skill, and momentum … she hadn’t dropped a set through the tournament. Kerber went up two breaks, 4-0, before awaking to a probable outcome that would have matched her beliefs.
“When I was up 4-0 in the first set, my nerves came a little bit; I was feeling it,” she began. “I was able to do 5-3, so that was a really important moment in the first set. Then I was just trying to be the player who makes the winners and who is going for it. I was not thinking too much about the score. I was just focusing to play my game like I played in practice. That was in my mind until the last point.”
This will be Kerber’s third semifinal at a major. She lost to the eventual U. S. Open Champion, Samantha Stosur, in 2011. At the time Kerber was ranked number 92. A couple months later she’d rocketed to the top 30, achieving one of the fastest rises on the WTA. She also played in the semifinal of Wimbledon in 2012.
Kerber owns seven career titles, four of which she won in 2015, and commands a 10-1 year-to-date record. Her only loss came at the hands of Azarenka in the Brisbane final, earlier this month.
One of Kerber’s top criticisms has been her lack of initiative. She seemed more content to track down balls and wait for opponents to commit errors.
“In the past I had a lot of matches where I was hoping, just trying to moving, catching every ball,” she began. “But against top players, like Vika, you must go for it. I think I had a lot of experience from the last few years that I must go for it. Of course, it’s not so easy. I can say it here [that] it’s easy, but to do this … it’s not so easy.”
Tuesday’s highlights certainly told a new and different story. The rounds of practice and years of hearing coaches tell her what she knew — be more aggressive — came together in triumph. From the first ball struck, through the lull in the second set before she sped to the finish, Kerber’s game was markedly different. Her balls had great depth, she reset her mind in critical moments, and her serve was a weapon as she placed it perfectly to force return errors from one of the best returners in the women’s game.
“I think she was aggressive,” a discouraged Azarenka told the press. “She served well. Especially in the key moments; she served really well.”
Waiting for Kerber is surprise semifinalist, Johanna Konta, competing in her first Australian Open main draw after losing in qualification three years in a row. The 24-year-old Great Britain resident was born in Australia and is currently ranked number 47. Of course she carries the weight of a wanting nation on her shoulders, as does compatriot Andy Murray (No. 2) who advanced to the men’s semifinals Tuesday with a four-set win over Spaniard David Ferrer. This will be the first time since the 1977 Australian Open that two British players have advanced to the final four of any major, reported the Associated Press. Murray’s advancement marks his 18th appearance in a slam semifinal.
“She’s done incredible,” Murray told the Associated Press. “Another comfortable and solid win today. Not easy either. She created that chance by beating the seeds. She deserves to be where she is.”
Konta started her tournament with a shocker of a win over Venus Williams, the number 8 seed. Konta also sent 2015 semifinalist and number 21-seed Ekaterina Makarova to the exit door two rounds later. Finally, Konta defeated sentimental favorite Zhang Shuai, 6-4 6-1, in the quarterfinals. The qualifier’s ranking, which had been as low as 200 three tournaments prior to Melbourne, will climb to a projected top 60 at the close of the fortnight.
Although Zhang was feeling tired, having played seven rounds prior to today, she will take away much needed confidence and hope for the remainder of the season. “In my heart I’m feeling I already win the tournament because I win seven matches. Doesn’t matter win or lose today. Just keep going.”