DOHA, Qatar -- No.3 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany needed a final-set tiebreak to overcome steely Czech Barbora Strycova, eventually triumphing 1-6, 6-2, 7-6(4), to advance to the Qatar Total Open semifinals on Thursday.
2014 Doha runner-up Kerber took a 7-1 head-to-head lead into her quarterfinal match against Strycova, but the Czech gave the reigning Wimbledon champion all she could handle in their latest clash before Kerber came back from a break down in the final set to notch the barnburner victory, after two hours and seven minutes of play.
"We played so many times against each other," Kerber told the press after the match. "Of course it's not so easy because it's always tricky to play against [Strycova]. You never know what to expect, if she is playing serve and volley or just moving, playing fast. But you have to be ready for every single moment and playing every single point, because every single point is different, especially against her."
Very little separated the two players during the epic encounter, with Kerber having one more winner and three fewer unforced errors than 49th-ranked Strycova. Each player broke serve five times, and it was the German who was just a touch better in the last few points, despite having squandered an early break in the final set.
"In the second set, I was just trying to coming back to playing point by point and trying to making a little bit less mistakes and going for it, staying positive," said Kerber. "And the third set it was a few up-and-downs, especially then at the end, a lot of emotions, as well. But I'm happy that I won it at the end. I mean, it was a really close match, and I think just one, two points decide the match."
World No.6 Kerber must now recover in time for a semifinal battle against either No.5 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands or Elise Mertens of Belgium, who play their quarterfinal match later on Thursday.
"I think it doesn't matter against who I'm playing, I will try to enjoy the same again," said Kerber. "They are both really good players. Both played 2018 really well. They have a lot of confidence."
After a long opening game where she saved a break point before holding, Strycova quickly started to take control of the first set. Kerber dropped serve in a flurry of errors to give the Czech a 2-0 lead, and Strycova kept using crafty volleys and sturdy forehands to roll through the opening frame from there.
Kerber used her signature crosscourt backhand to get on the board at 3-1. Strycova, however, continued to dominate in the set, crushing a forehand down the line to claim a tough service hold for 4-1, and breaking the German again to lead 5-1. Strycova closed out the set in the next game, as Kerber fired a whopping 17 unforced errors to only four winners in the opener.
Kerber, however, was far more precise and aggressive in the second set, particularly off of her forehand side. The German dropped serve at love in the opening game of the set, but immediately broke back at love, and cruised from there.
A deft lob on break point at 2-1 put Kerber up a break, and the No. 3 seed consolidated for 4-1 behind a variety of forehand winners from multiple court positions. More powerful forehands allowed for another break of the Strycova serve to close out the set, as Kerber had 11 winners in that timeframe, matching her unforced error count.
Thus, Strycova and Kerber went into a decisive third set for the first time in their extended rivalry. The German kept her aggressive play going early in that set, winning the first eight points of the set en route to a 3-0 lead.
But Strycova struck back, erasing Kerber’s game point for 4-1 with a backhand winner down the line before climbing back on serve at 3-2. Deep returns helped Strycova to another break of serve, leading 4-3 after having won four games on the trot.
Kerber, however, quickly pulled back level, using beautiful crosscourt groundstrokes and passes to reach 4-4. The German later held a match point on Strycova’s serve at 5-4, but the Czech forced an error with a solid forehand on that point, and she held on for 5-5 to keep the epic encounter alive.
In the tiebreak, Strycova went up 2-0 before Kerber found her rhythm, reeling off four straight points to lead 4-2. A blistering forehand pass put Kerber up 5-3, and she garnered three more match points after a Strycova forehand flew long. Two points later, it was vintage Kerber as she struck a crosscourt forehand for a winner to earn a hard-fought victory.