MELBOURNE, Australia - No.17 seed Angelique Kerber survived a dangerous debutante to kickstart her 2020 Australian Open campaign, defeating qualifier Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-2, 6-2 in one hour and 22 minutes.
The German had been forced to retire in the second round of Adelaide last week against Dayana Yastremska with a back injury, but recovered to turn in a watertight performance against a talented but erratic 18-year-old Grand Slam debutante who was eager to show off her skills to Rod Laver Arena in the biggest match of her career to date. The scoreline belied the quality of Cocciaretto's shotmaking at times: the Italian would strike 32 winners today, but those would be slightly outweighed by her 36 unforced errors. Kerber, by contrast, kept both numbers low, with 17 winners balanced by 15 unforced errors.
"I was feeling good," Kerber said in the on-court interview regarding her physical state. "I had a lot of treatment, so that was really important." The 2016 champion was also full of praise for her opponent: "I think she will have a great future," she said. "It was not so easy - she played really well, I was just trying to stay tough."
Another ace, another $100 for #Aces4BushfireRelief.@AngeliqueKerber wraps up the first set against Cocciaretto, 6-2.— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 21, 2020
Don't forget you can also contribute: https://t.co/bffi4Dtcko #AO2020 | #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/Ki44t266ql
Thirteen of Cocciaretto's winners, but also 16 of those unforced errors, would come in the first three games alone, which took 24 minutes in total. In a measure of the challenge facing Cocciaretto, the World No.175 was forced to battle through six deuces in each of her first two service games, losing the first but getting on the scoreboard with the second. Both times, Kerber responded with a quick love hold to place the pressure firmly back on the teenager.
Cocciaretto, who was ranked World No.779 as recently as May but who finished 2019 on a 10-match South American streak, capturing ITF W60 titles in Asuncion and Colina, had never even played a Grand Slam qualifying event prior to last week, and nor had she faced a Top 30 opponent before. But she repeatedly impressed with her ability to construct spreading baseline points, and to finish rallies with clever redirections and injections of pace. But routine mistakes also flowed from the youngster's racquet at inopportune times, and she was unable to translate her best patches of tennis to an impact on the scoreboard.
Kerber, who began the match probing an unfamiliar opponent's game rather than seeking to overwhelm her immediately, would gradually tighten the screws as the set drew on. A dropshot from the 32-year-old saved a break-back point in the sixth game, before a typically up-and-down Cocciaretto service game that started with three straight winners but ended with four straight unforced errors sealed the double break. The three-time major winner served out the opening act authoritatively, closing it with her second ace.
Another rollercoaster game would set the tone for the second set. Cocciaretto dug herself out of a 0-40 hole with three brilliant winners, only to drop serve anyway with two more cheap errors. Thereafter, the match was one-way traffic with Kerber in the driver's seat. The youngster began to overpress even more, and the former World No.1 rubbed salt in the wound by coming up with some magical angles en route to the triple break for 5-0.
Not that Cocciaretto was ready to end her show court debut yet. Kerber squandered two match points for the bagel with groundstroke errors - and the 2018 junior semifinalist sensed an opportunity. Cocciaretto rattled off six consecutive winners to pull back two games, with the crowd cheering on her comeback. The gap was too large to make up, though, and Kerber made no mistake serving for the win the second time, closing the match out to love.