By Jane Voigt
Angelique Kerber took an extended walk-about last year. But make no mistake, she is back in form showing strength of character, honed defensive and spatterings of offensive skills, plus her iconic crouching-tiger ground strokes.
“I’m just so happy it’s 2018 and not 2017 anymore,” Kerber said, in her press conference, after thumping Maria Sharapova — the 2008 Australian Open champion — 6-1, 6-4, in sixty-four minutes. “I’ve learned a lot from the last 24 months. Everybody who knows me knows I never give up. I always come back.”
Kerber’s performance today was an authentic throwback to her break-through 2016, when she beat Serena Williams to win The Australian Open and Karolina Pliskova to win the U.S. Open, her only majors to date. She was also runner-up to Serena at Wimbledon.
Last year, though, painted a different picture. Kerber lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open to American CoCo Vandeweghe. In New York, the German lost to Naomi Osaka in the opening round, gaining zero headway in an attempt to defend her title.
Kerber and her on-again, off-again coach for five years, Torben Beltz, parted ways amicably in November. She hired Wim Fissette whose resume is flush with big names and big results: Kim Clijsters, Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka and, for a short time in 2017, Johanna Konta of Great Britain.
“We have fun on and off the court,” Kerber said of Fissette, immediately following her victory. “I needed the change; it was a good decision.”
Alongside Fissette, Kerber’s off-season focused on fitness, her serve and developing an offensive side to her predominantly defensive game.
“Of course it’s always easy on practice courts. But then during the matches … I’ve had some good ones this year.”
Kerber and Alexandr Zverev were doubles finalists in Perth earlier this month, losing to Swiss stars Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic at Hopman Cup. Kerber lassoed that momentum to win Sydney International tournament next, bringing her record in singles to 8-0.
“I think she played extremely well,” Sharapova told the press. “She was the more aggressive player. She took a lot more risks than I did and it worked. She’s a confident player at the moment.”
Sharapova never found a way to counter Kerber’s game. Sharapova did break back once in the second, giving fans some hope that there was a shift in the match’s momentum. But the feeling and reality were short lived. Kerber stomped out any good vibrations in the next game. Unforced errors — a total of 26 for the match — undermined Sharapova. Kerber had 7.
“After the first set I was trying not to think about the score,” Kerber said. “Maria Sharapova is a champion. She’s always dangerous, especially at Grand Slams.”
Kerber’s game has been maligned by pundits as frequently too defensive. Their assessment is accurate, in part. She’s speedy, anticipates well and plays with her left hand, which can throw off even a polished player like Maria. However, Kerber edged toward offense today. Something she and Fissette have worked on.
“I know I can always trust my legs. That I can run forever and that I can bring a lot of balls back,” Kerber began. “But I wanted to also improve my game, to be more aggressive, also taking the ball in my hands, like during a point.”
Sharapova quickly left Rod Laver Arena, after her defeat. She seemed discombobulated and somewhat humiliated. But, never fear … “She’ll be back,” Chris Evert said, calling the match for ESPN2.
Next up for Kerber is Su-Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei. The 82nd ranked woman bankrolled her career in women’s doubles, but today eliminated two-time semifinalist the 26th seed Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-2, 7-5. Hsieh, at 32, must like Melbourne because it marks the farthest she’s ever advanced in singles at a major both in 2008 and 2017 … the fourth round. Their match is on Monday.