No matter how it ends up for Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open, Melbourne is typically a city where she can celebrate. Her January 18 birthday, usually right at the start of the tournament, guarantees at least one festive moment. Five years ago, there came one even bigger, Kerber at the age of 28 winning her first of three Grand Slam singles titles.
But it’s now February. Kerber turned 33 three weeks ago, just about the time she entered a hard quarantine of 24 hours confined to her hotel room. And due largely—but not entirely—to the efforts of 26-year-old American Bernarda Pera, Kerber’s Australian Open ended on the tournament’s first Monday afternoon.
In a battle of left-handers, Pera beat the 23rd-seeded Kerber, 6-0, 6-4. Ranked 66th in the world, Pera personifies the term “dangerous floater.” Three years ago at this event, as a lucky loser making her main-draw debut, Pera upset ninth-seeded Johanna Konta in the second round. But the last two years here, she’d lost in the first round.
The hard lockdown was an unprecedented debilitating factor, in this case one faced only by Kerber. (Pera, on the other hand, was able to properly practice and train for five hours per day.)
“I mean, of course I was really trying to staying positive and doing the best out of the two-week situation,” Kerber said. “But, of course, you feel it, especially if you play a real match where it counts and you play the first matches in a Grand Slam, also against an opponent who doesn't stay in the hard lockdown. I was feeling this at the beginning, that of course my balls are always a little bit out and I was not feeling the rhythm that I was before the two weeks, to be honest.”
Added to the mix was the match-up. There is always an awkward quality when two lefties play one another—particularly if, as was the case with Kerber and Pera, they’ve never played one another. So happy to derail those righties who comprise 90 percent of the world, each respective southpaw rarely has moments when she flings her crosscourt forehand to another forehand. Angles, spin, serve and return locations, court positioning—all now uncomfortably compromised.
But early on, from Pera’s vantage point, it hardly mattered what hand Kerber played with. As far as lefty styles go, consider Pera more of the sledgehammer variety, a barrage of power reminiscent of the big punches thrown by Petra Kvitova. Through the first set, Pera was in complete control, drilling forehands left and right and making Kerber look feeble. Kerber won only eight points in the first set, Pera taking it in just 18 minutes.
The second started poorly for Kerber, too. She dropped the first eight points and served at 0-2, 15-40.
But with Kerber, the moment of peril often triggers a pivot. Sound as Kerber’s defense is, there is also a certain aggression within. Buried under the veil of counterpuncher is a shot-maker. Kerber doesn’t just keep balls in play. She creates—so long as she gets her soul energized and her feet keep moving.
From the brink, Kerber rallied to deuce. She earned an ad, lost it, then reached another game point courtesy of a wide Pera backhand. As a natural right-hander, Kerber’s serve has always been her biggest source of vulnerability: no freebies, easily attackable and, in this match, seven double-faults. Eventually, Kerber lost that game, giving Pera the chance to serve at 3-0.
But the switch had been turned, the seeds of doubt planted, Pera now aware that the second set was going to be far different. Serving at 3-0, 30-15, she double-faulted, drove a backhand long, double-faulted again. Kerber held, and now Pera served at 3-2. Such will be Kerber’s legacy: the toothpick-by-toothpick amalgamation of points, an application of pressure with movement, grit and a forehand that, once awakened, can lash and cut in many directions.
Inch by inch it went. Kerber hung on the ledge well enough to force Pera to serve out the match at 5-4.
Here again, another plot point. A butchered forehand volley from Pera, followed by a sharp Kerber forehand crosscourt passing shot and a flailed Pera forehand brought Kerber to love-40. This was competitive tennis as we all know it. There was Pera, thoroughly dominant for the first set and a half, one point away from a deadlocked second.
Forceful rallies turned the tide, including two sharp Pera forehands. At deuce, she let up on the gas, feathered a drop shot and lifted a majestic forehand lob over Kerber to earn a match point. It vanished when Pera played a vague chip that made it easy for Kerber to command the court and get back to deuce. On the next two points, though, Kerber, clearly rusty all match, failed to demonstrate the urgency with her movement that’s earned her three majors. A long forehand and a wide backhand closed out the 52-minute second set in Pera’s favor.
Laudatory as Kerber was about Pera’s play, she was also candid enough to know that the shift in preparation was frustrating.
“But when I'm looking back, of course I was not planned the two weeks hard quarantine,” she said. “I don't know, maybe if I knew that before to stay really two weeks in the hard quarantine without hitting a ball, maybe I would think twice about that.”
As the tournament continues—at least in these early stages—it will be interesting to see how those who underwent the hard quarantine will fare compared to those who did not.