Kerber vs. Sharapova: Former champions go head to head
The last two former champions left in the womens draw goes head to head at Australian Open 2018.
Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova share much in common: both 30 years old, former Australian Open champions and each having reigned as world No.1. Those shared traits point to the common qualities that have made each of them such stars – huge natural talent, enduring athleticism and a fierce determination to fully capitalise on both.
All of which combine to make their third-round encounter on Saturday one of the most intriguing matches yet of AO2018.
Typically, you’d expect players of their calibre to meet in a later round. But Kerber has, until recently, dipped by her own high standards, and Sharapova has been absent from the tour. They arrived at this Grand Slam ranked world No.16 and No.48 respectively but with a shared purpose – and capability – to rescale former heights.
Kerber’s ability to return to the form that took her to the AO2016 title and world No.1 ranking is clear in her 11 straight match wins to kick off 2018. She was unbeaten in singles at the Hopman Cup, the champion in Sydney and, in Melbourne, has surrendered only nine games in two rounds against Anna-Lena Friedsam and Donna Vekic.
After starting the season with a semifinal run in Shenzhen, Sharapova has also proceeded in Melbourne without the loss of a set. She marched past Tatjana Maria in the first round and survived an important test from Anastasija Sevastova in the second.
But each knows their Australian Open challenge now elevates. “It’s another tough match here,” said Kerber. “We both played in the past a lot of good matches. I know that I have to play my best tennis again. I think it will be a good match.”
The two former champions have in fact contested seven matches, with the Russian holding a 4-3 lead. Kerber is the winner of their past two encounters – on grass at Wimbledon and clay in Stuttgart – but they haven’t competed since 2015.
“I'm just looking more about me, like how I will prepare, just playing my game from the first point, just of course trying to do my best,” the German said. ‘I'm looking forward to playing against her. This is the matches I'm looking forward to have, especially at the beginning of the year.”
Sharapova, who returned from her 15-month suspension last year unranked, similarly embraces the opportunity to test her form against the game’s best.
“I look forward to these matches. I want to be playing against opponents that have former Grand Slam champions,” she said of Kerber. “She's had success here. She's had success playing out here in these conditions on these courts. I want to see where I am on that level.”
Similar tests exist for former champions in the men’s draw. Novak Djokovic, returned from his six-month injury break with wins over Donald Young and Gael Monfils in Melbourne, faces a tricky encounter in the No.21 seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
While Novak has won all four encounters against the lefty Spaniard – the most recent in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year – he also admits that physically he’s “not 100 per cent, but (still) building.”
Roger Federer is also taking nothing for granted as the defence of his AO2017 title continues against No.29 seed Richard Gasquet. The Swiss leads the pair’s head-to-head record 16-2 and anticipates a quality match.
“I love playing the guy,” said Federer. “He’s got great variation, it starts with his serve, then starts with his backhand (and he) can move to the net. A little old school. We’ve had some good matches over the years.”
Fans can expect an entertaining encounter as the two of the game’s most graceful competitors bring their artistry to the court. Much like Kerber and Sharapova’s high-stakes encounter, it’s also one that will showcase how the best players typically bring out each other’s best.