Wimbledon Day 2 | Kerber clears first test

Traditionally the reigning champion opens play on the first Tuesday and, in the absence of the pregnant Serena Williams, the honour fell to last year’s finalist Angelique Kerber.

I think this is more in my mind - to not put too much pressure [on myself] now for this tournament Angelique Kerber

A lot has happened since the German faced off against Williams in a rematch of the Australian final earlier that year, which she won to claim her first Grand Slam title.

While Kerber lost in three great sets at Wimbledon 2016, she was on a rich streak of form that was to take her to the No 1 ranking in the world.

She won the silver medal at the Olympics and advanced to her third major final in New York, unseating Williams from the top spot in the process when the American lost in the semi-finals, and adding a second Grand Slam title to her name by defeating Karolina Plíšková in three sets to win the US Open.

She ended the year as World No 1 after Serena pulled out of the WTA Finals in Singapore.

As so many have found out to their cost, getting to No 1 and staying there are two very different experiences, and Kerber struggled with her form in early 2017 producing a string of lacklustre performances and losing in the fourth round in Melbourne.

In fact, the 29-year-old Polish-born German has been No 1 much of the time since September but when Williams won the Australian Open, she amassed enough points to take back her top ranking from her.

With the monkey off her back, Kerber’s form improved and when Serena withdrew from Miami with a knee injury, the German regained her No 1 ranking after Madrid, despite her own retirement in the third round.

She suffered a bout of sickness and injured her elbow ahead of the clay court swing, which saw the re-emergence of Simona Halep while Kerber suffered a bruising loss at the French Open when she became the first World No 1 in history to be ousted in the first round of the French Open, falling 6-2 6-2, to Ekaterina Makarova.

The loss left her vulnerable to losing her top ranking again, with just 115 points currently separating her from Halep.

Kerber is defending 1,300 points, which are due to fall off after Wimbledon when the new rankings are issued, while Halep, who reached the quarter finals at Wimbledon last year, only has 430 points to defend.

A good start for the German, therefore, was essential.

Being World No 1 is not is not just about heading the rankings, it is about headlining the sport and fulfilling a myriad of media commitments, both at home and abroad.

No longer the hunter, Kerber has become the hunted and her difficult first half of the season is testimony to her struggle against top players.

Seeded one at Wimbledon, she exuded confidence, however, coming into the fortnight: “I’m already so long the No 1.

“I will try, of course, to keep it, but at the end, I am here to playing round by round and focusing only on my matches, not about the numbers or the rankings, the points I have to defend, or whatever.”

Kerber played only one tournament before Wimbledon, at Eastbourne where she reached quarter-finals losing to Johanna Konta.

“I had good matches last week,” she said. “I’m healthy so far, so this is very important for me to see how I’m feeling during the match, after Birmingham, [and] also get few matches before coming here.

“I think it was a good decision to playing Eastbourne last week.

“I’m really happy that I’m playing good tennis again on the practice courts, but now I have to make the transit [into the match].

“I think this is more in my mind – to not put too much pressure [on myself] now for this tournament.”

And so Kerber stepped onto Centre Court looking every inch the top seed, knowing she is significantly more effective on grass than on clay.

While she has yet to capture a title this year, and none of her 21 wins in 11 tournaments have been against a top 20 opponent, Kerber looked the part, steady and sure.

A world-class returner, she is known for her fighting spirit and defensive skills, often forcing opponents into error with quick, efficient movement both laterally and vertically on the court.

A left-hander, she is solid off both forehand and backhand, with an uncanny ability to turn defence into offence and the skill to make extremely difficult cross court passing shots.

Against her first opponent, Irina Falconi, who was born in Portoviejo, Ecuador and hails from the United States, she was tested enough and came through.

The American qualifier’s highest WTA singles ranking was World No 64 two years ago, but the 27-year old is now a lowly 247 and never posed a real threat, certainly not on paper.

The threat, if any, would come from Kerber herself and she steered herself clear of mishap, recalling how she felt at Wimbledon last year.

On the face of it, the 6-4 6-4 straight sets victory in 87 minutes looked straightforward enough, but the 15 winners Kerber struck against her 15 unforced errors demonstrated a player searching for form.

Kerber broke serve twice at the outset to go 3-0 up in the first set against a nervy Falconi, who took time to find herself on the cathedral that is Centre Court.

Find herself she eventually did, producing some lovely touch and effective volleying to break back and keep it close for the rest of the first set before going down 4-6 in 48 minutes.

The Centre Court crowd urged the American on and she made it to 2 games all before she was broken again, but she picked herself up once more to break back immediately with the aid of a shanked winner off her racket and a lucky net cord.

It was just a matter of time and Kerber is a patient and persistent player so, with the match delicately poised at 4-4 in the second set, when Falconi threw away her service game, the World No 1 efficiently wrapped up the match.

By the end of this Wimbledon, the German will have spent 35 weeks as the World No 1, putting her in 12th position on the all-time list, far ahead of Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.

The crown may rest uneasily on her head and unless she can make the latter stages of these Championships she is likely to lose the top spot to Halep or Pliskova.

Meanwhile, the pressure stays on Kerber with every match and her next hurdle comes in the form of Kirsten Flipkens, the Belgian ranked 88, who was a 6-4 6-3 winner over Japan’s Misaki Doi, for a place in the last 32.

“All the memories came back. It was amazing what happened last year,” Kerber said. “I’m happy to be back, but this year is completely different for me. I’m just happy I’m through the first round.”

The sigh she made as she shook hands with Falconi at the net seemed to say it all.



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