When Angelique Kerber hit a winner on Monday, she did her best to imagine the cheers coming from living-room couches all over the world.
“It’s not the same,” the former No. 1 said from behind a blue mask after her 6-4, 6-4 win over Ajla Tomljanovic in Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open. “I have it in mind, I’m trying to play good tennis for all of them at home.”
For much of the summer, Kerber was skeptical that she would play any tennis at all in New York. The Open is a special tournament for her: She made her first major breakthrough here when she reached the semifinals as an unseeded player in 2011, and five years later she went ahead and won the title. But as recently as a month ago, she sounded as if she had no plans to return in 2020.
“As of today, I can honestly say, I can’t imagine it,” Kerber said in mid-July, when she was asked by the German Press Agency if she thought she would fly to New York and enter the bubble that the USTA was building in New York. “Even if the organizers say that they are playing, it does not mean for me that I automatically participate. After all, it’s no secret that the [COVID-19 case] numbers are going up in the United States.”
Since Kerber voiced her fears, the case numbers in the States have never really come down. At the same time, the number of WTA players deciding to skip the Open went up. Six of the Top 10 women eventually pulled out. Many expected Kerber to join them; instead, just nine days before the tournament began, she made a surprise announcement that she would take her place in the field, after all.
“I can’t wait to get back on court and compete,” Kerber wrote on Instagram.
One look at her draw should make Kerber happy that she decided to take the plunge and cross the pond. Ranked 23rd, she has been elevated to the No. 17 spot in the seedings, and placed in the same quarter as Karolina Pliskova, the woman she beat in the final here in 2016. Pliskova is the No. 1 seed, but she’s erratic enough to lose to virtually anyone. Also promising for Kerber: She’s the only player in her quarter, and one of only three players in her half of the draw, who have won a major title (the other two are Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova).
Maybe that’s why Kerber quickly shook off whatever rust may have been clinging to her strokes today, and played sharp tennis from start to finish. She has come out flat and made early exits at Grand Slams in the past, but eight months away from the game—her last match was a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open—only seemed to make her happier to return to it. When you’re away that long, and you’ve flown from Germany to New York, you don’t want to have to fly home again after playing just one match.
“I was really happy with the way I moved,” Kerber said. “It’s always a little difficult to play points [after so much time practicing], and make the transition to the match court.”
Kerber played the way she always has. She ranged far and wide on defense, and surprised Tomljanovic with sudden down-the-line winners. Her serve was just as shaky as ever; she double-faulted five times, threw in short second serves, and was broken three times. But Kerber was five for five on her own break points, and when Tomljanovic made a run at the end, moving from 2-5 to 4-5 in the second set, Kerber responded not with frustration, the way she often can, but with resolve. As well as a little luck: Down 0-15 in the final game, she hit a forehand that looked as if it would end up in the net; instead, it crawled over for a winner and slowed Tomljanovic’s momentum just in time.
“It’s a little bit weird to play without fans and without the support and without the atmosphere of the center courts,” Kerber said. “It was not so easy at the beginning, but you get used to it a little bit.”
One person who was there in support was her longtime coach Torben Beltz. After a period apart, they reunited earlier this season.
“Returning to Torben, it’s actually nice again to have someone who I really know, [who] knows me, how my game is working, and he knows how to improve my game as well,” Kerber said. “So we are speaking the same language.”
Whatever her reservations about coming to New York, Kerber seems pleased to be playing tennis again, and returning to old routines.
“We had a lot of fun in the last few weeks during our preparation,” she said of her team’s work. “I just try to enjoy as much as I can the tennis right now.”
For Kerber, the unique quality of the bubble gives her a chance to forget about the past and the future and just focus on this one-of-a-kind present.
“It’s important not really looking too much back,” she said. “It’s more like being now in the moment here.”
Kerber knows that somewhere people are watching and cheering. She’s had breakthroughs in New York before, but she’ll try to keep this bubble from bursting for as long as she can.