NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.17 seed Angelique Kerber, playing her first tournament since January, warmed to her task to defeat Ajla Tomljanovic 6-4, 6-4 in the first round of the US Open after one hour and 28 minutes.
A left leg injury had sidelined the German before the Tour shutdown in March and she did not enter last week's Western & Southern Open in the New York bubble, meaning that the last time she had set foot on court in a professional match was in her Australian Open fourth-round defeat at the hands of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But Kerber impressed throughout with her aggressive intent and point construction, as well as her ability to rise to the occasion on big points, while on several occasions her skill in turning defence into offence was reminiscent of her very best: if there was rust in the 2016 champion's execution at times, her freshness in terms of athleticism and sticking to her strategy was also very much evident.
"For me it's a special situation," said Kerber afterwards. "I played my last match at the Australian Open, and now few months later we are here in New York. So this is the same, like, it's also important match that I played today, because you don't really have expectation on yourself. You don't know where you are and how you can make the transition now to the match courts, which is always a little bit different than just practicing. I think right now it's, for me, it's important [to] not really look too much back. It's more like being... in the moment here and trying to also taking all the experience from all the years that I have already on my belt."
The match opened with four straight breaks of serve: though Kerber put together some excellent points off the bat, inconsistency off both wings meant that she was unable to translate it into a scoreboard advantage. Indeed, it was Tomljanovic who was the first to hold, coming up with a neat counterdrop and a first ace en route to a 3-2 lead.
Kerber moving 🔛 💪— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 31, 2020
Up next: Dolehide/Friedsam pic.twitter.com/aKVjhPl4hA
As though galvanized by this, Kerber wasted no time in tightening up her own game. A smash from the baseline was evidence of her confidence as she headed towards her own first hold, and at 4-4 she pounced as Tomljanovic's backhand faltered to break again. Serving for the set, the former World No.1 was ruthless, chasing down a Tomljanovic dropshot to nail a perfect winner in the corner on the way to a love hold.
Kerber's level rose even further in the second set, and Tomljanovic would have to work doubly hard just to remain on level terms. The Australian would manage to come up with some magic to cling on, such as marvellous stop volley at full stretch in the first game, but in the main found herself dragged relentlessly around the court by Kerber, whose redirection of the ball - particularly on her forehand side - was increasingly brilliant.
A sumptuous dropshot-lob combination from the three-time Grand Slam champion paved the way to a first break of the set for 3-2, also aided by Tomljanovic's ever-more erratic forehand. There would be no looking back: the World No.59 could not take advantage of a pair of Kerber double faults in the next game to break back, and Kerber's forehand continued to be irresistible as she forged ahead to a double-break.
With her back to the wall, Tomljanovic determinedly upped the power on her to stay alive. The 27-year-old finally forced her way through a half-chance as Kerber served for the match, saving a match point and reducing the deficit by two games. But even though Tomljanovic's backhand down the line would threaten a comeback, the gulf was too much to make up: stepping up to the line a second time, Kerber sealed her third match point with a service winner to set up a second-round clash against either Caroline Dolehide or compatriot Anna-Lena Friedsam.