Angelique Kerber deals with being 'hunted'

Training stints with German great Steffi Graf since March last year have boosted Kerber's performance, as she has won six WTA tournaments in the past year.
Training stints with German great Steffi Graf since March last year have boosted Kerber's performance, as she has won six WTA tournaments in the past year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Aussie Open champ Kerber has to adapt to becoming the player everyone wants to beat

She used to be one of the numerous title challengers in top-tier tennis tournaments, but in January, Angelique Kerber became the woman every player wants to beat.

Such is the change in status when one becomes a Grand Slam champions, and the German is discovering quickly that, with an Australian Open title to her name, opponents nowadays bring on an extra eagerness to defeat her.

The 28-year-old told The Straits Times from Rome, where she is competing at this week's Italian Open: "This is a challenge for me, it's a new situation: Every player will try to give more than 100 per cent against me. They have nothing to lose against me right now.

"I would try to find a way to manage this and to still beat the players and win the matches. But you always have ups and downs over the year. I learnt from the past few months that every match starts from zero."

The German has had a patchy string of results following her dream run in Melbourne, where she defeated 21-time Grand Slam winner and world No. 1 Serena Williams in her first Grand Slam final.

MARKED PLAYER

This is a challenge for me, it's a new situation: Every player will try to give more than 100 per cent against me.

ANGELIQUE KERBER, on how her opponents have changed after she won January's Australian Open.


STRESS? IT'S AN HONOUR

They told me it's a privilege to have the pressure. I know that I must work hard every match, point by point, round by round like what I did in Australia.

KERBER , on the advice she received from tennis greats Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi.

Although she retained her Porsche Tennis Grand Prix crown in Stuttgart last month, she fell in the opening rounds the Qatar Total Open in February, the BNP Paribas Open in March and at last week's Madrid Open.

The world No. 2 knows that consistency is key if she is to become Germany's first world No. 1 since Steffi Graf, who spent a record 377 weeks at the summit between 1987 and 1997.

Williams holds a comfortable 2,495-point lead over Kerber. However, the German has much fewer points (1,606) to defend from now until the US Open, compared to her American rival (6,165).

Should Williams fail to retain her French Open and Wimbledon crowns, Kerber could stand a chance to overtake her and become world No. 1.

Kerber said: "To be No. 1, you have to play in a lot of tournaments, play a consistent year to (amass) a lot of points, to be good the whole year. That's what I looking to play - a consistent 2016. I'm not looking at the rankings right now."

Kerber has credited her idol and tennis legend Graf, a 22-time Grand Slam winner, for the renewed belief that she could beat the top players.

She paid a visit to Graf in Las Vegas last March having lost six of eight matches then, a miserable run that saw her drop out of the world top 10 for the first time since 2012.

The subsequent training with the German great stopped the dreadful sequence. Since then, Kerber has won five premier titles and most importantly, her first Grand Slam this year. In just a year, she has tripled the number of WTA titles she has won, taking the tally to nine.

She said: "I feel I can play the big tournaments and also win the finals against big players like Serena."

She returned to visit Graf in late March and spent a few days on the courts with her mentor as well as Graf's husband Andre Agassi as she gears up for the year's second Grand Slam, the French Open.

Kerber said: "They told me it's a privilege to have the pressure.

"I know that I must work hard every match, point by point, round by round like what I did in Australia. This is how I go to Paris."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Dealing with being 'hunted''. Print Edition | Subscribe