Pressure, said Billie-Jean King famously, is a privilege. But in 2017, Angelique Kerber seems to be finding the public expectation that accompanies the world No.1 spot anything but a thrill.
She emerged from her first-round joust against Irina Falconi the 6-4, 6-4 winner, yet this was far from a routine straight-sets victory.
The injury-hit Italian, who came through qualifying to make her Centre Court debut in this match, illustrated why her current ranking of 247 is misleading, overcoming a slow start to test Kerber’s movement around the court – and finding her wanting more than once.
“Playing first rounds in Grand Slams are always tough, especially with my first-round match that I lost in Paris,” said the left-handed German afterwards, in a reference to her fall at the first hurdle at Roland Garros five weeks ago. “I was actually just thinking about point by point, trying to find my rhythm during the whole match.
“One of the major challenges about being No.1 is that there are much more expectations, much more pressure, from me, from outside, from everything. It’s harder to stay there than get there.
“You have to learn a lot of new things. New experiences. You have to learn. You have to get through all the things. But it was always a dream and I’m enjoying it. There are up and downs. Right now I am trying to make things not too complicated again. It’s always good to have a tough first-round match. I’m taking it round-by-round and looking forward to my next match.”
How many of those matches there may be for her at Wimbledon 2017 is difficult to forecast on this form. For Kerber, 2016 was her annus mirabilis, where she not only captured both the Australian and US titles, but was a spirited runner-up to Serena Williams here as well, and ascented the No.1 spot after lifting the trophy at Flushing Meadows.
But she has admitted that sitting at the top of the tree has been a burden to her, underlined by the fact that she currently lies at a lowly No.15 on the Race To Singapore leaderboard.
Had she lost in this opener, she would have surrendered her No.1 spot. As it is, she must reach the final here once again to have any chance of retaining her ranking, and even then is dependant upon what Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep may do here.
Falconi – an Italian national born in Ecuador and now resident in Florida – is 27 with a lot of experience under her belt, and rose as high as No.63 in May last year after winning her first WTA title on the clay of Bogota.
But a right foot injury put paid to that ranking, and now she is relishing her chance to return. Wimbledon has never been a rich hunting ground for her – she has made the first round of the main draw on four occasions previously, falling at that opening hurdle every time.
But having given Kerber a 0-3 start, she got the feel of the grand stage and began testing her opponent. As is often the case in such matches, she had nothing to lose by going for her shots, and profited particularly from repeated volley winners.
For a good while, her winners-to-errors account was positively balanced, and even when she went down a break in the second set, an all-out collapse did not follow. But with the match finely poised at 4-4 in that set, the end came all in a rush when Kerber finally took control.
Yet it was a far from authoritative win by the world No.1. She faces a testing second round against the 2013 semi-finalist Kirsten Flipkens, and if the draw does pan out, then her prospective last 16 encounter with Garbine Muguruza looks a humdinger.
Source: Kate Battersby| Wimbledon