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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday January 12, 2017

Angelique Kerber

"The pressure is a little bit higher than last year," says Angelique Kerber.

Photo credit: Australian Open Facebook

Hall of Famer Martina Hingis once summed up the pressure of being world No. 1 simply: “It’s always easier being the hunter than the hunted.”

World No. 1 Angelique Kerber has experienced both extremes.

Watch: Serena's Major Motivation

The German left-hander rocketed up the rankings from No. 10 to No. 1 last season. Now the ultra-consistent Kerber faces a first-time challenge of defending her Australian Open title.

Court dimensions haven’t changed, but Kerber concedes expectation levels have grown dramatically.

“Of course I’m really happy to be back here in Melbourne where everything starts for me last year. So I have a lot of great memories,” Kerber told the Australian Open official website in this video interview. “To be honest of course it’s a little bit different. I mean the pressure is a little bit higher than last year.

"Still, I’m trying to enjoy this. I’m here to play my best tennis and to start again the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne this is, for me, very special.”

Since surpassing Serena Williams for the world No. 1 ranking after her Flushing Meadows victory, Kerber has posted a 10-5 record, including a 7-6 (5), 6-2 loss to talented young Russian Daria Kasatkina in her Sydney opener earlier this week.

Understandably, there could be lingering fatigue from a stupendous 2016 season in which Kerber stunned Serena in the Australian Open final to win her first career major, posted a career-best 63-18 record, defeated Karolina Pliskova to triumph at the US Open and contested three of the four Grand Slam finals.

Then there’s the pack of challengers racing at her heels charged by their own powerful ambition.

Second-ranked Serena is playing for an Open Era record 23rd Grand Slam championship, Garbine Muguruza is trying assert herself as a future No. 1 and a pack of players—Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep, Dominika Cibulkova, Pliskova and Johanna Konta—are driven to break through for their first Grand Slam title.

“The thing about Kerber, there's a saying that it's easier to get to No. 1, it's harder to stay there. I think she's going to be tested,” ESPN analyst Chris Evert told the media in a conference call to promote ESPN’s Australian Open coverage, which starts Sunday night.

“I think it's going to be interesting to see how mentally tough she's going to become and how she's going to fend off the competition, because there's some dangerous players: (Karolina) Pliskova, (Garbine) Muguruza, Johanna) Konta.

“Very much like the men, you have really like 15, 20 tough, tough players, and good depth at the top now. Then with Serena, who is going to be even more motivated than before. I think it's going to really test her toughness.”

While Kerber's slow start in tune-up tournaments isn’t optimal preparation for launching a first major title defense, it isn’t foreboding either.

Last year, Kerber was runner-up in Brisbane before pulling out of Sydney after one round. Her Australian Open nearly ended in the opening round, but Kerber fought off a match point rallying past Misaki Doi, 6–7 (4), 7–6 (6), 6–3.

A greater concern for Kerber is her sometime shallow slice second serve. Opponents know how tough the 28-year-old German is in running rallies. All the more reason to attack the second serve and try to put the supreme counter-puncher on her heels with the first strike.

Two reasons why Evert is confident Kerber can sustain her spot at the top of tennis are her physical fitness and mental discipline—both are major assets in the Melbourne heat.

“When you look at the top 10, I look at the list, to me Kerber is mentally the toughest of all of them, aside from Serena when she's really focused,” Evert said. “Angelique Kerber, her main strengths is her mental toughness, because she improved so much. Years ago, she was the one that was rough on her player box, kind of whining out there. She has improved that so much."

Consider that before her title run in Oz last year, Kerber often wilted in Australian heat. She failed to survive the second round in four of her eight prior Australian Open appearances and had never made it past the fourth round before winning Melbourne. 

Fitness gives Kerber a fighting chance to continue her run at the top, says Evert.

“The mental toughness, and her I think physical fitness are the two things that she is head and shoulders really above everyone else," Evert said. "If anybody can maintain No. 1, I think that she will do it for a while.

"I think it depends on Serena, how much she wants it, how hungry she is. She's really going to be the one that's going to challenge her the most of anyone.”


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