German former world No 1 reflects on 2016 success and subsequent dip in form after she breezes past Karolina Pliskova in straight sets at WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Angelique Kerber credits 'fighter' in her for 2018 revival after reaching Dubai tennis semi-finals
“New year, a new start” is clearly serving Angelique Kerber well.
The German, a two-time grand slam champion and former world No 1, endured a 2017 to forget, but has returned in 2018 obviously seeking to right those wrongs.
On Thursday, Kerber moved into the semi-finals of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, breezing past Karolina Pliskova, a top-five player who herself stood at the rankings summit, albeit briefly, last year.
Kerber impressed, needing little more than an hour to triumph 6-4, 6-3 at the Aviation Club. It lifted her 2018 record to 15 victories from 17 matches, a run that included a tournament win in Sydney and a semi-final appearance at the Australian Open.
Understandably, the confidence is coursing.
“I have much more confidence than when I started the year, where I actually had no idea where I am, especially after last year,” Kerber said following her victory on Centre Court. “I have already so many matches on my belt, so that gives me much more match confidence.
“I'm trying to play every single match my best, trying to go out there and just think about the next match, the next point. Nothing else.”
It must have been difficult to clear the mind after last year. In 2016, Kerber sealed both the Australian Open and US Open. In between, she finished runner-up at Wimbledon. She won her national tournament, in Stuttgart, and took silver at the Rio Olympics. Soon after, she ended Serena Williams's stranglehold on the world No 1 spot.
Then, after a decent start to 2017, she dipped. Subsequently, she slipped, eventually to outside the top 20. It came as a shock not just to the tennis world, but to Kerber, too.
“I don't know exactly what [went wrong],” she said. “There are a lot of things that came together, especially after 2016. I was still trying my best.
“But I didn't know what to expect with all the things on and off court. Also the motivation was a little bit different. I think I had to go through all those things. Now I am much stronger and much better as a person, as a player, and know what to expect right now.”
Still, it required some serious soul-searching during the off-season. Since, Kerber has climbed inside the top 10 – she sits ninth – and, having celebrated her 30th birthday last month, looks to have rediscovered that trademark tenacity.
“Yes, of course," she said. "Especially after last year where I was sitting home, I told myself, ‘OK, this is not the end. I know I am a fighter. I will come back and I will go through all the tough pre-season, fighting back’. This is how I am.
“So many things happened in the last two years where I learned a lot. Now it's a new year completely, a fresh start for me where I'm really trying to focus again on my tennis, on how to improve my game.
“It's great to being back in the top 10, playing good tennis again. But for me right now, my goal is improving my game, enjoying my tennis, just trying to continue how I’ve started the year.”
That quest carries on against defending champion Elina Svitolina in the last four on Friday. The two met at the same stage 12 months ago, when Svitolina outlasted Kerber 6-3, 7-6 en route to the trophy.
The Ukrainian top seed, the world No 3, appears in fine fettle as well, coming through her own quarter-final rather comfortably on Thursday. It contained the odd scare, but Svitolina defeated Japanese wildcard Naomi Osaka 6-2, 6-4. Kerber recognises the threat posed by her next opponent.
“Yeah, she played unbelievable last year,” Kerber said. “Still a lot of confidence, especially here where she won last year. She's bringing a lot of balls back, playing good tennis, moving good. It will be a close and tough match tomorrow.”