Wednesday morning’s quarterfinal match between Angelique Kerber and Madison Keys ended in 51 minutes with the German dominating from start to finish. The US Open runner-up with the blistering groundstrokes managed to win only three games against the 2016 champ. Earlier in the third round, she had crushed Maria Sharapova in a battle of former number ones in just over an hour, making only seven unforced errors.
The only blimp came in her fourth-round encounter with Su-Wei Hsieh from Chinese Taipei. The German withstood a terrific performance by Hsieh who was a clear crowd favorite in Australia where she trains. Two points away from exiting the tournament at one point, Kerber had to summon all her physical strength and experience to overcome an opponent who finally showed signs of exhaustion at the start of the third set. The match, in which the crowd got intensely involved, demonstrated yet again, that women’s tennis is just as competitive and entertaining as men’s.
But the quarterfinal failed to live up to its expectation as Keys once again seem to wilt under the pressure of a big stage. She started the match with a string of unforced errors, quickly went down 4-0, and ended up losing the first set in just 22 minutes.
Afterwards, Kerber said, “I played the whole week just going out there playing my game and enjoying it.” It’s nice to see her happy and enjoying her tennis because she’s too good a player to not be ranked inside the top ten. And with Wednesday’s victory over Keys, that’s where she will return.
Kerber, who celebrated her 30th birthday here in Melbourne last week, and is the only Grand Slam champion now remaining in the women’s draw, looks poised to take her second title in Melbourne on Saturday. For her, it is a chance at redemption.
From dominant 2016 to downslide in 2017
It was in 2016 that Kerber established her dominance on the women’s tour, winning not one but two Grand Slam singles titles as well as a silver medal in the Olympics, and taking over the number one ranking. But since then, the Steffi Graf protégé failed to win another title until this year. Not only that, but she played some dismal tennis against much lower-ranked players.
She lost in the first round of the French and US Open last year, and didn’t make it past the fourth round at the other two Majors either. Her ranking plummeted from one to outside the top 15 by the year’s end. There was nothing positive about 2017. Like Garbine Muguruza before her, Kerber seemed unable to handle the pressure that followed her first Grand Slam victory.
After her first-round Wimbledon victory last year, where she looked like a shadow of her best self against qualifier Irina Falconi, Kerber said, “There is much more expectation, much more pressure, from me, from outside, from everything.”
Billie Jean King once famously said, “Pressure is a privilege.” And yet, time and again, we have seen – especially on the women’s side in recent years – that after winning a first major, players seem to fade away. But the best among them do recover. Muguruza, who had a terrible year following her French Open victory in 2016, did manage to come back to the top at Wimbledon last year. There’s no reason why Kerber cannot do the same.
Starting strong in 2018
At the start of 2018 that begins to look like a distinct possibility. The German is currently on a match-winning streak of 14. That includes an unbeaten run in the singles matches at the Hopman Cup earlier this month, followed by a title run in Sidney just before the Australian Open. That victory ended what was a 27-tournament title drought for Kerber.
Standing between her and the trophy now are two higher ranked players who are yet to win a major. Caroline Wozniacki has been playing some wonderful tennis since last year when she won the season-ending WTA finals in Singapore, while Simona Halep, who is the top seed here, saved multiple match points in the third round in the most dramatic match of the tournament so far to keep her hopes alive.
But even if Kerber does not go on to win the title, she may have already beaten the jinx. Coming back from a set down to beat Hsieh on Monday and imposing her authority the way she did over Keys and Sharapova was very important for someone who has been trying to prove both to herself and to everyone else that 2016 wasn’t a flash in the pan.
She’s back in the top ten. She has avoided another ignominious early exit in a Hajor, as well as a loss to a much lower-ranked player. She’s made it to another Grand Slam semi-final, and is once again going to be the bookmakers’ favorite for the title. She’s ensured a solid start to the year, and should carry this confidence into the American hard-court season coming up.
One can only hope that Kerber’s annus horribilis taught her some useful lessons and that she’s now ready to resume her position at the top of the women’s game where she belongs.