Five short weeks ago, Angelique Kerber stepped up to the baseline for the first round of her Roland Garros match against Anhelina Kalinina, then the world No 139, trailing 6-2, 5-0 and seemingly lost on the tennis court. The saddest part of the grim scene was that it was no surprise given Kerber’s form over the prior two years. Kerber was eventually snuffed out 6-2, 6-4 for her third successive grand slam first-round defeat. As she flailed outside the top 25 it was fair to wonder what the future held for her at 33 years old.
If ever there is an example of how quickly fortunes can change in tennis, the 2018 Wimbledon champion now stands resolute in the quarter-final as clear proof. On a particularly manic Monday, Kerber exhibited calm and considerable experience as she outplayed Coco Gauff, the 20th seed, on Centre Court to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon with a clean 6-4, 6-4 win.
Both players struggled early on in a swirling wind that forced them to abort ball tosses and make last-minute stroke adjustments but Kerber, the 25th seed, eventually settled into the match and was mostly faultless thereafter. The German limited her unforced errors, her defense was often impenetrable and she returned Gauff’s nuclear deliveries with depth and consistency. When the opportunity presented itself, she consistently wrong-footed her American opponent with trademark down-the-line forehands before finishing the match with an array of winning passing shots.
Faced with a champion in full flow, Gauff did all she could to maintain contact. She pieced together numerous holds with enormous serving, her first serve consistently clearing 120mph, and constantly unleashed on her backhand. But her forehand was the clear difference between the two. Each time Kerber was in danger, she directed returns or defensive shots to the Gauff forehand, which could not consistently penetrate her defense.
Despite falling in the same round as in her breakthrough at Wimbledon two years ago, the identical results belie the clear progress Gauff has made over as her game continues to grow. Two years ago, much of her success was owed to the mental strength she showed in scrappy three-set matches. But the quality of the 17-year-old’s game is improving each week and she leaves Wimbledon now having reached the second week of two consecutive grand slams, without dropping a set on her way at either.
As the only player over 30 remaining in the draw, Kerber will face the 19th seed Karolina Muchova for a spot in the semi-final. Throughout her struggles, Kerber has maintained that she has been training well for a long time and that she never stopped believing that she would eventually turn a corner. Her resilience underlines that with the right will and attitude, few slumps are insurmountable and it can only take a few wins to rediscover confidence and form.
In Kerber’s case, she arrived on her favourite surface, grass, and gained momentum in front of her home crowd in Bad Homburg just over a week ago, eventually winning her first title since her 2018 Wimbledon triumph. She has taken that momentum and run with it to establish a nine-match winning streak, reminding all onlookers of the quality it takes to reach world No 1 and win three grand slam titles in the process – while threatening to achieve even more.