PARIS, France - Not everyone is lucky to learn for the best. But Angelique Kerber made every minute with the great Steffi Graf count as she picked herself up from a puddle of doubts to being the player in form going into the French Open. She has dropped only six games in her first two matches.
"I have been doing well for the last few months," said the 27-year-old German after going through to the third round. "Clay was not always my favorite surface, but right now I am playing very well and have a lot of confidence from the last few weeks. So am really happy about my performance here."
She has had a rollercoaster ride in 2015. Losing in the first round at the Australian Open seemed to have laid seeds of doubt in her mind; Kerber then lost her opening matches in Antwerp as well as Doha, and after the first three months of the year she did not have a single title to show. Following the defeat in Antwerp, she dropped out of the Top 10 in the world for the first time since 2012.
In an interview with the German press, she said that, "Antwerp was the breaking point" and forced her to look at other options. She split with her coach Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh, re-hired her old coach Torben Beltz. Then she set up camp with Steffi Graf in the Nevada desert to bring her mind and game back on track.
"I trained with her before Indian Wells and again after Miami," says Kerber.
"She gave her some tips also but it's just good to be around Steffi. She's a champion," says Beltz. "Playing with Steffi is always good, intense practice. It helped her mind also to play with her."
Beltz had been Kerber's coach in 2012, one of her best seasons on tour, when she was ranked No.5 in the world and made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon. Spending time alongside two of the most influential Germans in her career seems to have worked like magic. She won back-to-back clay court titles in Charleston and Stuttgart. In Stuttgart, she beat Top 5 players Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to put a seal on her return to form.
"We started in USA, and we had lots of conversations with her. She worked very hard on the court, she played very good in Charleston, winning some matches was good for her," adds Beltz. "Footwork was one thing we worked on a lot. We worked on the game, that she has to play offensive and defensive as well."
That Kerber found her footing on one of the most difficult surfaces has renewed her belief. But the left-handed German has gone about her job in her characteristic low-key fashion so far at Roland Garros. Up next for her is the tall Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza, who shot to prominence at the 2014 French Open with her second round upset of World No.1 Serena Williams.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in India.