For Angelique Kerber, everything changed last year when she arrived in Charleston. And her life hasn’t been the same since.
Kerber pulled up to the Family Circle Tennis Center on Daniel Island last year in a slump, and a bit out of sorts. The 28-year-old German, who had established herself as a top 10 player on the WTA Tour, had won just three of her previous 10 matches and watched her ranking drop to No. 16.
“I didn’t have the best start last year,” Kerber said. “But when I came to Charleston, I was feeling from the first moment like I was really welcome. I had some great matches there, and the fans were amazing. Everything clicked there.”
Playing in Charleston for just the second time, Kerber won five straight matches to take her fourth WTA singles title. She went on to win three more titles in 2015, a run that launched her to the Australian Open this year. There, she conquered world No. 1 Serena Williams in the finals to win her first Grand Slam event.
This week, Kerber returns to Charleston for the Volvo Car Open ranked No. 2 in the world, with the Australian Open trophy sitting “right in the middle of her living room” at home and the phrase “Grand Slam champion” in front of her name.
“After Charleston, I had a lot of confidence again and played some great tennis,” she said. “That tournament was very important to me last season. I’m looking forward to coming back, having a great time and maybe playing some great tennis again.”
The Australian Open trophy, she said, is a reminder “of the best two weeks of my career so far.” So are the expectations and duties that come with winning one of tennis’ major championships.
“I recognize I am a Grand Slam champion. I have a lot more things to do,” Kerber said. “It’s a different pressure than I had before. I have much more confidence inside of me. It feels different, but I know I need to go with what worked because this is why I had the highlight of my career.”
Despite the increased fame — and a paycheck of $2.5 million — resulting from the Australian Open, Kerber insists she’s the same person who grew up idolizing Steffi Graf and enjoys sleeping, swimming, dancing and hanging out with friends. Those friends include countrywoman Andrea Petkovic, the 2014 Family Circle Cup champion.
“For me as a person, nothing changes,” Kerber said. “I’m the same person. But a lot of things have changes around me. I have so much to do with the press, and a lot of people recognize me on the streets and on the airplane. But my team and me, my family, were still the same.”
But WTA star Victoria Azarenka certainly sees a difference in Kerber.
“She’s a very good player and obviously winning the Australian Open and playing so well this year, she plays with a different confidence and really raised her level,” Azarenka said.
Kerber’s success has sparked a renewed interest in tennis in Germany, the home of past legends Graf and Boris Becker.
“It feels good because now I am seeing that tennis is going up again in Germany,” she said. “Football is the biggest sport there, and I love to watch it; I’m a big football fan. It’s great to see, after Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, that now again the people are watching tennis and the focus is getting bigger on tennis again. This feels good, and I’m proud that I am the person that makes tennis so popular again.”
With her increased profile comes more responsibility to speak out on issues surrounding the game, of which there have been plenty lately.
— On Maria Sharapova testing positive for using a banned drug: “I was shocked,” Kerber said. “When I heard about it, I was shocked like everybody. But I don’t know the details, so I can’t say too much. I know I’m always looking twice or three times now at what I put in my body. It’s important for everybody to check what they are taking.”
— On a tennis official saying that women players “ride the coattails” of stars on the men’s tour: “Of course, it is bad,” she said. “I think the WTA and women’s tennis has a great history in the past, and we are working very hard. At the end, I think it’s good that he’s not a tournament director anymore.”
Kerber’s main focus, however, is her tennis.
At the Miami Open last week, she had her left leg heavily wrapped. Still, Kerber made the semifinals for the first time since the Australian Open, a result that she admitted was sorely needed.
“Actually, it was not so easy after (the Australian Open), because I had so many things to do,” she said. “And after Indian Wells, where I was still not feeling 100 percent.”
As she did last year, Kerber spent some time in Las Vegas recently, working with her idol, Graf.
“It was quiet,” she said. “I was working really hard on the court with Steffi and Andre (Agassi), which is always a great experience to be with them on the court ... I had the feeling that I was practicing hard again and that I’m ready again for some tough matches.”
WHEN: April 2-10
WHERE: Family Circle Tennis Center, Daniel Island