It was the first day of the 2021 French Open, and three-time major champion Angelique Kerber had just come off the court after her latest disappointing loss.
It was her third consecutive first-round exit at a Grand Slam, and she had won just eight matches all year. Kerber, 33, confessed to a German news outlet that she had thoughts about retirement before the season got underway, and her recent play wasn’t doing much to quell further speculation on the topic.
Kerber couldn’t hide her frustration and had few answers about the loss in Paris, but her attitude changed considerably when asked about the next major.
“I’m looking forward to Wimbledon, for the grass-court season, and it sounds much better for me,” Kerber said.
As she has proved over the first 10 days of the tournament, she had good reason to be happy. On Tuesday, the resurgent Kerber held off No. 19 seed and Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova 6-2, 6-3, and just 24 hours prior, she defeated Coco Gauff, also in straight sets.
On Thursday, she’ll play in her first major semifinal since Wimbledon in 2018.
“I never [stopped] believing in myself, in my team,” Kerber said on Tuesday after the quarterfinal win. “For me, I love to play tennis and I love this sport, to go out there and playing again in front of the fans. I think this gives me also that push to play my best tennis right now.
“I have always in my career [had] some up and downs. I was always believing that I can come back because I know what I can [do]. … I never stopped [believing] in myself, how I can play.”
A vintage performance from @AngeliqueKerber…
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 7, 2021
Kerber’s career has never been predictable. She made her major main-draw debut in 2007 but never advanced past the second round until 2010. She flew largely under the radar during those first years on tour, and she was often overshadowed by some of her German peers like Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki.
But she continued to work hard and increasingly saw improved results — she advanced to the US Open semifinals in 2011 and won her first WTA title in 2012.
At the relatively advanced age of 28, and nine years after making her first major appearance, she won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2016. She then won the US Open and reached the Wimbledon and Olympic final that same year.
She became the oldest player to achieve the No. 1 ranking in the world for the first time and carried that top ranking into the 2017 season. But Kerber failed to reach the quarterfinals at any major in the new season, dropping her out of the top 10.
Kerber rediscovered her form in 2018 with a trip to the semifinals in Melbourne and the quarters in Paris. She played spoiler against sentimental favorite Serena Williams, in her first major final since childbirth, claiming the Wimbledon title 6-3, 6-3. She was back to No. 2 in the world by the end of the year.
Kerber hadn’t advanced past the fourth round since.
She injured her left leg at the 2020 Australian Open and didn’t play again before the season was stopped in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Later at the US Open, her first tournament back, she made the fourth round, but she didn’t win another match all year.
The 2021 season was looking to be more of the same.
Following the end of her clay-court season, in which she won four matches in four events, she relished the chance to play two grass-court tournaments in Germany in preparation for Wimbledon. Kerber lost in her second match in Berlin, but she found her footing in Bad Homburg.
She defeated top-seeded Petra Kvitova in the semifinals and ultimately won her first title since Wimbledon in 2018 with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Katerina Siniakova.
The victory in front of an adoring home crowd reinvigorated her, and she now carries a 10-match winning streak with her into Thursday’s clash against world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. Barty won the last meeting between the pair and is the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the match, and the title, entering the semifinals, but those around the game aren’t ready to discount Kerber.
“[Kerber] knows what it takes to win Wimbledon,” analyst and two-time major doubles champion Mary Joe Fernandez said on ESPN on Tuesday. “She does everything well. She doesn’t have the huge weapon to knock you off the court, but she reads the game really well, she anticipates really well, redirects, does whatever it takes.
“She’s got good feel on the grass. She likes the drop shot as well. It’s going to be interesting, but I like to go with people who have experience winning these major championships, so I really like Kerber’s chances to go all the way now.”
After the final point had been won in her match against Muchova, Kerber bent down to her knees and clenched her fists and had a gleeful, almost childlike, smile. She later posted a photo of the moment on her Instagram account, writing simply: “This is what it means.”
It was the 80th career grass-court win of her career, and she trails just Serena (107) and Venus Williams (97) for most-ever among active players. On the court following the victory, she told the crowd how happy she was to be back at the All England Club after the 2020 tournament was canceled, calling it her “magic place.” Having talked openly about how challenging life on tour has been with all of the restrictions and limited number of fans, it was clear their presence and support made it that much sweeter.
The smile remained on her face as she walked off the court, waving to the fans and soaking it all in.
There were no retirement questions this time during her postmatch news conference. Less than a month after that painful exit at Roland Garros, Kerber is now two matches away from winning her fourth major title and reclaiming her place among the sport’s best.
She didn’t make any promises going into Thursday, just that she simply hopes to enjoy it and wants to win.
“When I was a kid I really looked forward to playing this tournament good and playing my best tennis here,” Kerber said. “Now I’m back. I’m coming after [a] really tough time. I was not playing good the last few months.
“Now winning last week a tournament at home, now playing well here again, that means a lot to me.”