While the sun might be shining on Monday at least in Eastbourne but quite apart from the battle against the elements this week for some of the WTA elite, there is also the thorny question of who will nab the World No. 1 spot – current incumbent, Angelique Kerber or the chasing Simona Halep bvcd1§.
Going into the tournament, Halep needs to be a couple of rounds ahead of the two-time Slam champion and really needs for Kerber’s woes to be continuing since the start of the year. The German seemed to be getting some groove back after making the Monterrey final.
Kerber said, in her pre-tournament press conference: “I was feeling good in Monterrey. Then I was straight going on clay. I think clay is not maybe my favourite surface, but I think it was also too short the time between hard and clay.
“Next year I think I will make my schedule a little bit different, especially because of the short transition. But yeah, now it’s just done and I’m not thinking back about all the things.”
It has been a continual period of adjustment for Kerber. First the demands of a Slam champion after claiming the title in 2016, and then reaching the World No. 1 spot.
She explained: “I think it was a completely new start of the year for me. And also, all the tournaments I had much more things to do, but it was a little bit different than last year. I mean, of course last year it was also a little bit different the end of the year, but now I think, yeah, I had to making few decision also if — like, I scheduled my daily schedule, how I practice, how often I practice.
“Also, I need few more time for myself, so maybe sometimes I was not practicing right now, maybe just once and taking more time for me. So just few small things.”
Grass is a far better surface for her, and her run to the Wimbledon final proved that, and she spent her downtime after the early exit at the French Open training in Mallorca.
“I practiced there last year, as well, before the tournament. This was the same. I practiced in Mallorca the week before the tournament, and then I went back because I knew that the weather is great there.
“It’s completely different to England, but it was a decision because I was sure that I can practice there. Because the weather is good, I did a lot of fitness sessions there, and I think also if it’s a nice place, nice weather, you have much more positive energy there.”
Halep: Wants to face No. 1 challenge
While no-one would have really bet on Kerber in last year’s Wimbledon final against Serena Williams, plenty will have staked a few pennies on Simona Halep to win her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros. From a set and 3-0 up, she found herself on the receiving end of Jelena Ostapenko freeing up her game, eventually losing the big prize – something that still rankles.
She admitted: “I still have, before going to sleep, some thoughts about that final, but it’s good and keeps me, like, on the toes, how you say it.
The only one, very tough thought, is set 3-0 that I couldn’t take that game. I had so many break points. Now I’m thinking that I should have hit that ball, the return, the second serve, and just go for it. But I didn’t. So that one is killing me, actually.”
With Wimbledon as wide open as the French was, it is perhaps a surprise that Halep does not figure quite as much in fellow journalists’ Five to Watch. She is a a one time semi-finalist (2014) and reached the quarter-finals last year, so actually could well be a contender this year.
She said: “I did semis once. I did quarters last year. So I feel that I can play good tennis on grass, but it’s always difficult. You never know. Important is the return, because opponents’ serve is really tough to return. But, yeah, I think I have the game to play well.”
Perhaps more surprising though was her fire and determination to take the opportunity to grab the top spot.
“Before the [Roland Garros] final I was thinking [about becoming World No. 1] (smiling). Was my next goal, let’s say. Yeah, now that I’m so close, it’s like it’s coming more into my mind and into my soul. I really want to get there.
“But I’m close but still far. So I have just to take match by match and to do everything I can to be No. 1. It’s going to be a big thing for me.”
Yet as we have seen for both Kerber, and to a certain extent Andy Murray, it has become more of a poisoned chalice. Did Halep really want that? She replied without any hesitation:
“Yeah, I want. And I want to face that challenge (smiling).”
Kerber and Halep are scheduled to start their Aegon International campaigns on Tuesday.
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