By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Former world number one Angelique Kerber celebrated her 30th birthday on Thursday with an emphatic 6-4 6-1 win over Donna Vekic at the Australian Open to set up an intriguing third round clash of former champions with Maria Sharapova.
The resurgent German, who broke a 27-tournament title drought with victory at the Sydney International in the leadup, is now riding a seven-match winning streak as she looks to recapture the form that propelled her to the 2016 title at Melbourne Park.
Kerber was uncomfortable in her skin as the top seed during last year’s tournament, when she lost in the fourth round to American CoCo Vandeweghe, but ranked 21st this year, she looms as a dangerous floater in the draw.
In scorching conditions at Margaret Court Arena, she gave 52nd-ranked Vekic the run-around with a series of deft drop-shots and closed out the one-sided match with a confident cross-court smash.
Born in the same year of the Australian Open’s debut at Melbourne Park, Kerber soaked up a birthday serenade from the terraces during her post-match interview on the court.
“It’s just amazing how the time is flying,” said Kerber, who struggled for form through a difficult 2017 season.
“I’m feeling good, it’s good to win today, of course, on my birthday.
“Now I think the work pays off and it’s just the beginning of the year.”
Kerber has turned over a new leaf in a number of ways, parting ways with long-time coach Torben Beltz in November, the man who guided her to two grand slam titles and the world number one ranking in 2016 during an eight-year partnership.
She is now guided by prominent Belgian coach Wim Fissette, who split with Romanian top seed Simona Halep at the end of the 2016 season.
Elite tennis is a small world in many ways, and Beltz was in Vekic’s players’ box at Margaret Court Arena, having linked up with the Croatian during the off-season.
It wasn’t awkward for Kerber, though.
“I was not looking in the box,” she dead-panned to reporters.
The heat tested the patience of both players during the match, while Vekic got frazzled by a wailing baby in the terraces when serving in the second set.
She remonstrated with chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein but was quickly dismissed.
“Donna, it’s a baby … I don’t want to kick out a baby,” the Frenchman snapped.
Kerber’s match against five-times grand slam champion Sharapova will be a duel of thirty-something players, and the German said she took heart from the longevity of tour veterans like Serena Williams and Roger Federer.
“Yeah, getting older. I was waking up this morning, I say, ‘OK, the ‘2’ is gone right no,'” she said with a smile.
“I’m looking forward to the thirties … I’m feeling the same like yesterday.
“I am feeling healthy. I’m still fit. I am still enjoying my tennis. I’m not looking too much about the age, just how I’m feeling. I’m still feeling young.”
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)