Angelique Kerber’s results in her first couple of WTA tournaments since winning her maiden Grand Slam title this year did not go the way she would have wanted. She suffered first round exits in back-to-back events at Doha and Indian Wells.
If the pressure of expectations was a deterrent then that is only going to increase manifold this time. For Kerber is not only coming to the Wuhan Open in China right after winning her second Major title at the US Open but this is also the first time in her career that she is entering any tournament ranked as the World No. 1.
The German southpaw is the first player to ascend to the top after 22-time Major winner Serena Williams’ Open Era record-equalling feat of 186 weeks at No. 1 ended. With the American now out of the picture having withdrawn from Wuhan and Beijing due to a shoulder injury, it goes without saying that all eyes will be on Kerber.
Also read: Top 10 Moments of Angelique Kerber in 2016!
The current scenario also further brightens up the German’s chances of finishing the year as the numero uno player. With so much attention on her, how will the 28-year-old respond? That is probably the first and foremost question on every WTA fan’s mind.
Nine top-10 players in the Wuhan draw
For one, being a WTA Premier 5 event, the Wuhan Open will present a stiff challenge for the reigning No. 1. The points come on a platter – a whopping 900 for the win which automatically indicates a packed field.
The draw is abound with established talent and dangerous floaters and Kerber is indeed going to have to produce her immaculate best to scythe through the field. Each of the top 10 players except Serena Williams will be in action this week out of which three – World No. 5 Simona Halep, World No. 8 Carla Suarez Navarro and the ninth-ranked Madison Keys are stacked in the top-seeded Kerber’s half.
The Australian Open and US Open champion kicks off her Asian swing against the winner of the clash between two players endowed with an attacking game – Kristina Mladenovic and Coco Vandeweghe. And it only gets even trickier from there. The 2015 semi-finalist is set to meet her old rival and fellow southpaw Petra Kvitova in the third round.
They have one of the closest rivalries with Kerber possessing a slight edge of 5-4 after finding success the last three times they met. The Czech, however, did win this tournament in 2014 and surely will not let herself be swatted away like a fly.
Then there is Suarez Navarro lurking as a potential opponent in the quarter-finals following which an intriguing semi-final contest with Halep awaits. The Romanian, who has won three titles this year – the same number as Kerber – did beat the German during one of her title-winning campaigns and that too as recently as last month.
Even though Kerber did avenge that Montreal defeat in the very next tournament at Cincinnati, she cannot afford to relax against someone blessed with as effortless movement on the court as Halep.
The other half of the Wuhan draw too looks equally menacing. Anyone from the bunch of Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova or defending champion Venus Williams can reach the final. The resurgent Caroline Wozniacki, who triumphed at Tokyo on Sunday, too can stake a claim for a spot in the final if she continues with the same confidence.
Kerber's consistency is a shot in the arm
There is no doubt that Kerber’s path is slippery and anyone of the above players can account for her if things somehow go awry for the World No. 1. But one cannot ignore the fact that the Kerber who showed up the past few weeks is the best version of the German we have ever seen. In five of her last six events, she did not lose before the semi-finals, thus further vindicating her consistency.
She apparently does not panic anymore. At the 2016 US Open, the resourcefulness, tactics and the enviable equanimity that she displayed under the most trying conditions were proof that she has learnt to take pressure in her stride.
She even admitted it herself in a recent conversation with the WTA Insider. “I’m feeling much more comfortable in my skin, how I am, and how to work. It’s because of the experience; I now know how to deal with the pressure, with things I have to do off-court.”
Clearly, there is an undeniable conviction in her abilities now that was earlier nowhere to be seen. Still, being the hunted is a different ballgame altogether.
Will her burgeoning self-belief be strong enough to help her make a sustained reign at the top of the pack?