FROM THE APIA INTERNATIONAL SYDNEY – Angelique Kerber has been a very good, but not great player since 2011, when she came out of nowhere and reached the US Open semifinals. After that, and a very solid 2012, it appeared that lefthander really did have Grand Slam winning potential. She is naturally strong, is a terrific mover and is a standout defensive player. She has good but not great serve, but that is not uncommon on the WTA tour. She has world class two-handed backhand that she can slap into the corners. But her forehand has lacked some oomph, as has her return. Playing standout defense propelled her into the year-end top 5 in 2012, but her lack of improvement in 2013 saw her drop to the No.9 ranking, which is where she is now.
Pro tennis is not all about aggression, but if you look at the WTA’s top three of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, it does require some high octane offense.
That is what Kerber knew she had to bring to the table this year and it was that attitude and style that saw he blitz the powerful teenager Madison Keys 6-4, 6-2 in the Brisbane semis.
“I was working very hard in my off‑season and trying to play more aggressive in my practice sessions,” Kerber said. “I think right now I try to make it in my matches, so it’s good I have like very good matches also before Melbourne. I’m feeling good, and I try to going for my shots. That’s also what I improve in my game. I think that it’s good right now.”
Much of a player’s willingness to go for her shots has to do with confidence, and a willingness to make mistakes and move on. On Thursday in Sydney, Kerber actually attacked Keys’ big serve and let loose with her forehand ,which looked much improved and dangerous. She still needs to put balls back in play, but she has to go for openings.
“ I have [going back to defense] sometimes in my mind, but I try to not thinking about this,” she said. “I really try to focus then from point to point and not thinking about the past, and just trying to go then for my shots. Also when I make some mistakes not thinking about this too much. Going for my shots for the other point.”
Kerber will be the favorite going into the final against the Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who played an excellent match in upsetting Petra Kvitova, but even if the German goes down, she knows that she has to keep attempting to change her mentality. Not too many players can claim wins over Serena, Sharapova, Aga Radwanska and Li Na, but she can. She also played Azarenka very close they last time they faced off.
That indicates that some day, the 25 year old will have a legitimate chance to win a major, if she takes her gloves off.
“I think you need to play for sure aggressive to be in the top 5, because it’s not easy to play against them when you’re just a defensive player,” Kerber said. “So I try to mix it a little bit and improve my game like to be more aggressive.”
GET THE INSIDER DELIVERED TO YOUR MAILBOX. CLICK HERE
Men’s story of the day: Tomic focuses
Defending champion Bernard Tomic came into his Sydney quarterfinal with a 1-5 record against his foe, Alex Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian’s one-time Aussie coach, Jack Reader, once attributed that to ‘Bernie not liking how Alex plays.” Both guys are squirrely, unorthodox players who are quite talented, but not known for their large hearts or killer instincts. But this time around, at home in front of a very supportive crowd, the Aussie Tomic stayed patient when he had to, didn’t get caught in Dolgopolov spider web and took big rips at the balls when they were in his wheelhouse. The result was a 6-4 6-3 win by Tomic, who once again playing at home looks very good. He also appears a good deal smarter as he managed to smash the mirror of himself into pieces. That would be “The Dolgo.”
“When I play him now I know what it’s like when players play me,” Tomic said. “It’s very different, because the balls that come to me are very unusual. I struggle with a lot of his balls. I’m like, What the hell was that? It’s his tennis, and that’s something I do well. Obviously he’s a difficult player. I’m happy I won.”
Tomic appears to have gained a bit more foot speed during the off season, is better balanced than he was last year and is clearly motivated to show his home country fans that he really is better than his world No. 51 ranking. On a cool night in Sydney, he also showed them that he can keep his head in a match that he was quite concerned about.
“I knew I had to stay focused with him, “ Tomic said. “ It’s not so much about playing amazing or that good. I just needed to stay focused and do what I needed to do against him. Against him you can be winning and feel so uncomfortable, and you might lose in one or two games against, like your rhythm and everything. So it’s difficult to find that timing against a player like that.”
Tomic could very well be better than his ranking, but outside of his fine Aussie summers, the 21 year old had never been a force on tour except for one strong Wimbledon. But that does not matter this week and won’t in the next two weeks in Melbourne.
He has the tools to win Sydney again — although Juan Martin Del Potro, who bested Radek Stepanek and will face Dmitry Tursunov in the semis — will be the favorite to do so. And if Tomic can defend his title, or even reach the final and play the elite likes of Del Potro tough, then he will be worth a long look at the Aussie Open.
Development of the Day
Juan Martin Del Potro says the Sydney courts are very fast and is hoping that the Ausralian Open won’t be as quick. “I think the bounce are really low,” he said. “Looks like a grass court, because very low bounce and very faster bounce, too. It’s not easy to play on the baseline and feel good on the lines, but I’m trying to do the best I can… I’m not training for this kind of conditions. I been practicing in hard court, regular hard court, and I was expecting different conditions for this tournament. Hopefully for Melbourne the courts and balls are slower to play long rallies, to feel the ball like I want. If not, I will have a couple days before start to change my mind and try to play the best tennis I can.”
Quote of the Day
The vanquished Petra Kvitova on her Aussie Open prospects: “I think the matches what I played was great, and I have three in my back. I think it’s really good to have this record coming to Australian Open. It’s a new week. I just hope that I can bring something good from Perth and from Sydney.”
What to Watch for on Friday
Can the cagey Pironkova finally realize her dream and win her first WTA title?