Centre Court seats were empty, for the most part, as Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka played their third-round match at Wimbledon. As much as this prestigious tournament wants you to think that it has the eyes of the country locked in, nothing could be further from the truth on Saturday: England and Sweden were on the pitch in the World Cup at exactly the same time this match began.
No matter… Kerber was so locked in from the get-go that even a packed tennis cathedral like this one wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Her defensive skills — a long list of assets — merged with keen offensive skills Osaka couldn’t disrupt.
“I’m not sure Kerber could be playing a better match out here today,” a commentator with ESPN said. “Everything she touches turns to gold.”
Kerber’s 6-2, 6-4 win propels her to Manic Monday for the fifth time in her career, having been the runner-up in 2016. Kerber’s victory also means she is the highest-seeded player left in the top half of the draw at 11, after the shocking upset of Simona Halep (No. 1) to Hsieh Su-Wei earlier Saturday. Of even greater import and shock is the fact that this is the first women’s Grand Slam event in the Open Era in which none of the top five seeds on the women’s side will reach the round of 16.
“I knew what to expect,” Kerber told the BBC right after her match. “We played tough battles in the past.”
Osaka kicked out Kerber in the first round of the U.S. Open last year. The early loss forced the German to rethink everything about her game. As a result she parted amicably with longtime coach Torben Beltz and joined forces with Wim Fissette. The Belgian, a former coach of Kim Clijsters, has edged Kerber away from her fatalistic attitude. Saturday, her game was so dominant that she didn’t have to change strategies let alone temper her thoughts in order to win.
“Kerber has come out here like a T20 cricketer,” an ESPN commentator said, meaning in a big way.
One of the dangers Kerber presents to all opponents is her ability to hide her intentions. She uses an open stance, mostly on the forehand, with her racquet face hidden behind her before striking the ball. Both players are fast, yet you’d have to give Osaka the edge in a footrace. Even saying that, Osaka couldn’t track down balls that were placed on every conceivable spot on Centre Court.
“You can see just how hard it is to get a ball by her,” Mary Jo Fernandez said when calling for the match for ESPN. She added, “She likes when people play hard at her.”
Osaka has said many times that she is shy, after being noted for witty comments in press conferences that make little sense but endear the 21-year-old to a larger global audience. Yet there’s nothing shy about the force with which she cracks a tennis ball. The power is her biggest asset, plus a smooth serving motion that resembles the best women’s server in the game, Serena Williams. These tools helped her master Indian Wells this spring, her first and only career title. It also pushed her up the rankings ladder; she currently stands at number 18. At the start of last year’s Wimbledon, she was ranked number 59.
“I feel like she’s playing at a high level, but everything she’s hitting is coming back,” ESPN said about Osaka. “She’s going to have to hope that Kerber drops off a little bit.”
Hope won’t win a match at Wimbledon or any other tournament, for that matter. But that’s what Osaka looked like as she served to open set two: hopeful. She lost that hope at love and wandered to the sideline with her head hung low, not a picture of belief. Yet she had options.
In the first set she won two out of two net approaches. Kerber, being a baseline hugger, could have been thrown off balance had Osaka taken more advantage of her booming serve to then come in for putaway volleys.
“[She] needs to be willing to come forward,” Fernandez said. “[She’s] got to be winning to take balls out of the air.”
We have to remember, though, that this was Osaka’s first time on Centre Court Wimbledon. The occasion could have overwhelmed her, which makes sense when looking back at the trajectory of the match. She played much more aggressively in the second, but could not make up the break she suffered in her opening game.
“Osaka says she wasn’t expecting Kerber to be as aggressive as she was today,” the WTA wrote on Twitter. “[She] says she’s disappointed she didn’t let herself enjoy her first appearance on Centre Court.”
Kerber has exhibited consistent resilience this season, in light of her breakthrough 2016 when she won the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, ending the year ranked number one in the world. She made the semifinals of Eastbourne prior to Wimbledon this year and showed her toughest self against former junior girls champion Claire Liu in the second round.
Belinda Bencic is waiting for Kerber on Monday. The Swiss player, who missed much of the spring due to wrist surgery, defeated Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-1, 7-6(3). Bencic has experienced the pressure of main-stage competition and won’t be shy in confronting the occasion. At 18, she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in 2015, becoming the youngest to defeat the legend since Maria Sharapova in 2004 at the WTA Finals.
At Wimbledon, Middle Sunday will be a day of rest. Kerber, though, didn’t seem too excited about a chance to lounge around in front of the telly or sip coffee in a cafe.
“I’ll relax a little bit and have a treatment,” she told the BBC. “But right now I’m going to have an ice bath.”
And a great chance to make a run in the second week of Wimbledon.