Angelique Kerber looked like a No. 1—which she was, not long ago—in a 6-1, 6-3 masterclass against Maria Sharapova. (AP)

Steve Flink: In Clash of Champions, Kerber Routs Sharapova and Shows Renewed Spirit

Not for a very long while has a third-round singles contest at a Grand Slam tennis tournament been more highly anticipated than Saturday night's encounter between Maria Sharapova and Angelique Kerber in Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. This showdown pitted the enduringly formidable Sharapova—the 2008 Australian Open victor, and a career Grand Slammer—against Kerber, the woman who finished the 2016 campaign in residence at No. 1 after collecting two major singles titles, including the one in the land Down Under.

After an abbreviated 2017 campaign that followed a 15-month drug suspension, Sharapova currently stands at No. 48 in the world. Kerber, too, was not entirely herself in 2017, slipping outside the Top 20, performing with incomprehensible timidity and clear discomfort almost all year long. Opening this season with an uplifting tournament triumph in Sydney (after going unbeaten at the Hopman Cup exhibition team event), Kerber climbed back to No. 16, playing some stupendous tennis in the process.

Make no mistake about it: Sharapova and Kerber both were highly motivated as they clashed under the evening skies in Melbourne. The winner would move on to the round of 16 and be the last player left in this year’s women’s field to have secured a Grand Slam singles title. The loser would suffer the indignity and frustration of a setback in the round of 32. The stakes for these two extraordinary 30-year-olds were substantial.

That is why Kerber was so exuberant following her 6-1, 6-3 triumph over Sharapova, which evened their career series at 4-4. The left-handed German spent far too much of 2017 harming herself with self-inflicted psychological wounds, falling into defensive patterns, approaching most of her most meetings against estimable adversaries in a constant state of negativity. She appeared in 22 tournaments last year, and did not secure even one title.

Yet the 2018 version of Kerber bears no resemblance to who she was a year ago. She is carrying herself in a manner befitting a champion. Sharapova realized from very early on in the match that she was confronting a top-of-the-line Kerber. In the first set, opportunities to impose herself were few and far between for the Russian. Knowing what she was up against, realizing that Kerber was often controlling the tempo from the backcourt and seldom giving anything away, Sharapova understandably was pressing.

The signs of danger were there for Sharapova immediately. She fell behind 0-40 in the opening game of the match, saved a break point with an effective body serve, but then lost her serve at 15 as the German dealt beautifully with a wide serve to her backhand. Kerber’s deep crosscourt return drew an errant forehand from Sharapova. Kerber consolidated that break swiftly, dropping only one point on her way to 2-0. She served with strategic assurance—opening and closing that game with unstoppable deliveries to the backhand—and kept Sharapova on the run.

Sharapova knew full well she had to get her teeth into the match, and did so admirably in the third game. She fought through three deuces and saved one break point with a lucky let cord winner to hold on for 1-2, closing that game on her own terms, lacing a forehand down the line to elicit an error from Kerber on the stretch.

This impressive stand gave Sharapova encouragement, but Kerber was largely unswayed.

The German succeeded with one of her favorite plays to reach 30-0 in the fourth game, swinging her southpaw serve out wide to the Sharapova backhand, opening the court for a down-the-line forehand winner. She took the next point for 40-0, double faulted, but soon went to 3-1. Sharapova sent a backhand drop shot down the line, keeping the ball reasonably low. Kerber, however, anticipated terrifically, moving forward briskly, slicing a backhand winner with supreme touch past her adversary.

Kerber implacably marched on. She opened the fifth game with a cagey backhand slice inducing an error from Sharapova, whipped a forehand winner down the line behind her opponent, and got great depth on another down the line forehand to reach 0-40. After losing the next point, Kerber broke at 15 with another smart backhand slice that Sharapova could not handle. Kerber had the insurance break for 4-1, and she was not looking back.

Down 15-30 in the sixth game, Kerber went to work diligently. A wide slice serve in the ad court was unanswerable: 30-30. A flat backhand winner up the line made it 40-30. And then Kerber took the next point for 5-1 by moving Sharapova methodically from side to side, exposing the Russian’s mobility issues. Kerber dictated that rally entirely, finishing it with a forehand winner up the line. Rolling now, Kerber wrapped up the 6-1 set by breaking Sharapova for the third time, conceding only one point in the process. In just 26 minutes, she totally eclipsed her renowned adversary.

The confidence gained from taking the first set so sweepingly stayed with Kerber at the outset of the second. She fashioned a 2-0 lead by sticking essentially with the same tactical recipe. It seemed entirely possible that Kerber would inexorably wrap up the triumph with her sound mechanics and exemplary preparation from the baseline.

Sharapova, though, is as prideful a competitor as the WTA has ever seen. She proceeded to piece together her finest tennis of the evening, while Kerber seemed to drop her intensity slightly. In the entire first set, the No. 21 seed made only two unforced errors, but her mistakes mounted as Sharapova waged a spirited comeback. In the first four games of the second set, Kerber made four unprovoked mistakes. Unsurprisingly, Sharapova took full advantage, and started hitting out freely, as her grunting grew louder, and her combination of power and precision, came fully into view.

Unwaveringly, Sharapova made it back to 2-2, but Kerber recognized the significance of the fifth game of this second set. It was time to reassert herself, and she did just that, holding at 15 with a scintillating backhand crosscourt winner. In Kerber’s mind, order had been restored. Nevertheless, Sharapova remained determined. In the sixth game, she did not miss a first serve, holding at love, taking utter command.

It was 3-3. Sharapova then garnered a break point in the critical seventh game, when she crushed an inside-out backhand return winner from the deuce court. Sharapova looked for an opening, and nearly found it, only to miss an inside-out forehand winner attempt. At deuce, Kerber’s drop shot was mediocre, but Sharapova overreacted, sending a two-hander out of court. Then Sharapova missed off the forehand after making an aggressive return. Somewhat tenuously, Kerber advanced to 4-3.

The pressure was back on Sharapova, unquestionably so. Serving in the eighth game, she released an ace, but then double faulted and erred off the backhand, committing her 22nd unforced error of the confrontation. Kerber, meanwhile, had made 15 fewer mistakes. A netted drop shot from Sharapova with Kerber scrambling made it 15-40, and she soon was broken at 15 on another forehand mistake.

Kerber was unshakable. Serving for the match at 5-3, she was letter perfect, starting with an ace on the first point. She held at 15, completing her 6-1, 6-3 victory in 64 minutes. It was a first-rate performance across the board. The win takes Kerber confidently into the round of 16. She will be the clear favorite to defeat Su-Wei Hsieh, and could meet Madison Keys in a blockbuster quarterfinal.

There is plainly a lot of hard work ahead, but Kerber will be thoroughly in the hunt for a second Australian Open crown and a third career major. She has cast aside her 2017 woes and has recovered her old mindset. She looks once more like the great player who was the best in the world the year before last. No matter what happens from here on in at the Australian Open, Kerber will surely be in the thick of things everywhere she goes this year.

Her legion of admirers must be delighted to see the revival of her spirit and the restoration of her game. Kerber at the peak of her powers is one of the most arresting players of the modern era in women’s tennis. The hope here is that she will keep believing in herself for a sustained period of a few more years. If she can manage to do that, Kerber will add prodigiously to her career record.

As for Sharapova, she need not be discouraged. She is both an optimist and a realist. In 2017, she played only 22 matches. If she can stay healthy this season and increase her level of match toughness, a return to the Top 10 is not only possible but probable.

In the case of Kerber, the view here is that she has an excellent chance to finish this year among the Top 5 in the world. Frankly, it would not surprise me at all if she ended 2018 back at the very top of the ladder.

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