Top seed and three-time defending champion Maria Sharapova has a tough task ahead of her if she hopes for a fourth consecutive Porsche Grand Prix title. Standing between her and a spot in the quarterfinals is Angelique Kerber, the resurgent hometown favorite. The German had struggled through much of 2015 before a renaissance on the green clay of Charleston restored the counterpuncher’s confidence, making tonight’s second round match all the more intriguing.
Though the Russian leads Kerber 4-2 in their overall head-to-head, the pair have split their last two meetings, both of which went deep into a third set.
Their last clay court encounter was, coincidentally, here at the Porsche Arena, and a marked an interested crossroads for each combatant. Sharapova was just beginning a seemingly improbable Roland Garros defense – the Ballad of Claypova had yet to be written. Still ranked No. 2, she battled through two scratchy matches just to meet Kerber in the semifinals; the quarterfinal against Ana Ivanovic being a particularly bizarre affair.
Kerber, by contrast, was trying to fend off bad memories already made on Stuttgart’s Center Court. The German had played and lost a crucial singles rubber against Ivanovic and Team Serbia at Fed Cup a week earlier. Though Germany ultimately clinched the tie, it hardly left Kerber in good stead a season removed from her major breakthrough.
With Sharapova generating pace and Kerber absorbing and redirect it, their matches always have the ingredients necessary for a classic, and for three arduous sets, the Stuttgart crowd was thoroughly entertained. She who was once a “cow on ice” moved effortlessly across the indoor clay, tracking Kerber’s angles and pulling off incredible winners. Across the net, Kerber played the game that took her within the World’s Top 5, receiving Sharapova’s raw power and returning it twofold. From a set down, the German eased into a decider and led by a quick break in the third.
As we’ve come to learn, Sharapova has maximized the gritty surface to match her boundless determination. Pushing Kerber farther behind the court, she began dictating as she had to start, but even winning five of six games to regaining the initiative, the No. 3 seed wouldn’t give up. A game from defeat, the German unleashed an arsenal of a screaming forehand winners to level the final set at 5-5.
It was up to the Russian to find one last gear; over the next two games, she did, breaking Kerber at love for a second straight Stuttgart final. For Kerber, tonight’s match represents another opportunity to compete with the best in the game.
“I’m looking forward to playing against Maria tomorrow. I mean, we had very tough battles in the past. It’s always nice to play against her and I will give my best. I think it will be very interesting match.”
Who do you think has the edge in tonight’s second round match? Sound off in the comments!