Ordinarily, a straight sets clumping of a semi-final opponent would be a boost to the confidence, a sign that all is well ahead of a Wimbledon final.
But while Angelique Kerber’s 6-3, 6-3 dismissal of an error-prone Jelena Ostapenko was swift and efficient, it bore little relevance to her appointment with Serena Williams on the Centre Court at 2pm sharp tomorrow. Williams is not like other opponents.
Still, Kerber could only play the woman in front of her and, yesterday, that was the former French Open champion and former Wimbledon junior champion, Ostapenko. The free-hitting Latvian was flummoxed by the speed of the court – slower than the outside courts – and by taking on a left-hander. She was then poleaxed by her own error count: 36 to Kerber’s miserly seven. Kerber was consistent, save for a minor wobble in the closing stages, and Ostapenko was a shambles.
It is only six months ago that Kerber was an absolute shambles. Her rise to the top in 2016 was remarkable. She won her maiden grand slam and followed that up with an appearance in the Wimbledon final, by winning the US Open title and by reaching the final of the end-of-year championships. By September, she had overtaken Williams at the top of the rankings and ruled the world.
But that brought a new raft of problems. Suddenly, she was a commodity to be sold to new sponsors by her manager. He ended up selling parts of Kerber that Kerber did not know she had. Come the start of the new season, all the commitments that had been made for her pulled her this way and that while she was now struggling with the pressure of trying to defend all her titles and ranking points. Unsurprisingly, it did not end well.
Announcing that she was closing the book on 2017 and starting afresh, no one believed her. Surely that was not possible. That is not how professional sport works, especially at the age of 29, as she was then. But that is exactly what she did.
Hiring Wim Fissette, Johanna Konta’s former coach, she started work in the off-season and has not looked back since. Her confidence is back, her game is back and now she is back in the Wimbledon final.
“I think last year a lot of things happened,” she said. “I think all the things, like to make the day schedule, to see what is good for me, what is not so good for me, to make the priority to playing tennis, focusing on just what I love, finding my motivation. There are a lot of things.”
Whether that will be enough to take on and beat Williams, though, remains to be seen. It was Williams who beat her in her only Wimbledon final and did so in straight sets. And while the grass courts encourage Kerber to be more aggressive than seems natural to her, no woman does aggression like Williams in a Wimbledon final.
“She’s always going out there to win the matches,” Kerber said. “I think it doesn’t matter against who she is playing. She’s trying to play like she played the years before where she won the big matches.
“Now for sure she had a lot of big confidence, especially after the matches she won here already. She knows the feeling to go out on this stage where you are in the finals, especially here. She won here I don’t know how many times. She’s a fighter. She’s a champion. That’s why she is there where she is now.”
Kerber thought it would be an “honour” to play Williams and that it would be “a new match”. Her problem is that Williams is getting back into the old routine – and that usually means she wins. Yet Kerber’s comeback story is almost as impressive as Williams’s, it is just not as well documented.
“She’s coming back,” Kerber said. “For me also, I’m coming back from 2017. I know that I have to play my best, best tennis to beat her, especially on the grass, on the Centre Court, where she won so many titles here. I know that she is always pushing you to the limits.”