STUTTGART, Germany - Angelique Kerber isn't ready to think about "The Paris Situation" quite yet, but the three-time major champion hopes her strong run to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros last year helps her quest to complete the Career Grand Slam this year in the City of Lights.
Having taken home the trophy at the 2016 Australian Open, 2016 US Open, and 2018 Wimbledon, the 31-year-old German is missing only the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen from her Slam collection. As she readies for the clay season, the World No.5 is bidding to become the seventh woman in the Open Era to win all four majors at least once, and the first since Maria Sharapova completed the feat at the 2012 French Open.
Women to Complete the Career Grand Slam (Open Era):
Speaking to reporters ahead of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, Kerber said she is fully aware of the stakes in Paris, but first things first: she has to get comfortable on the clay, her least favorite surface.
"You know clay and me, you know the story," Kerber said with a laugh. While her physical counterpunching style seems well-suited for the terre battue, Kerber has always preferred faster surfaces. Of her 12 career titles, three have come on clay - 2015 Charleston, 2015 Stuttgart, and 2016 Stuttgart - but she has yet to make a final on outdoor European red clay.
"Of course, it is the greatest challenge," Kerber said, when asked about winning Roland Garros to complete the Career Slam. "It’s a tough challenge, but I will not put too much pressure on my side because I know how it is with the pressure. I will right now focus on the tournaments ahead, and then when I’m in Paris I will think about the Paris situation.
"But you know, it’s always step-by-step, round by round like in every Grand Slam and I know of course how the feeling is to be in the Grand Slam, and Paris is the same. I will not think when I go to Paris, like too much ahead, just day by day."
"But until Paris there are still a few more weeks. So, of course the biggest goal in the next few weeks is Paris. But there are a few tournaments before which are also big. I will try to also play good and having a lot of matches, trying to take this as a preparation for me, and yes, for Paris."
Kerber's clay preparation hit a snag two weeks ago when she picked up a viral illness in Monterrey, which has limited her ability to train and practice. "It was not the clay court preparation that I was expecting, but I’m trying to do the best with the situation," she said.
"I’m feeling good. I need a little bit more time to feel the clay, to get ready again, to feel the ball. But I think I’m on a good way and that I can at least play good tennis for my first round."
If Kerber can quickly recover from her illness and get the practice she craves on the clay, her improved clay season last year should buoy her hopes of a Paris breakthrough. After being forced to retire in Stuttgart and then skip Madrid due to a thigh injury, the German found her best European clay form of her career, making back-to-back quarterfinals in Rome and Roland Garros. In Paris, she scored two strong wins over Kiki Bertens and Caroline Garcia to make her second French Open quarterfinal, and led eventual champion and clay-court stalwart Simona Halep by a set before the Romanian stormed back to win in three sets.
Last summer, Kerber's former coach Wim Fissette said he believed something clicked in Paris.
"To be honest, when she started to play on clay, on the practice she tried to hit winners on the second ball," Fissette told reporters at WTA Coaches Media Day at the Western & Southern Open last August. "I was like, I don't understand this. So we said ok, Angie, the goal is to be free of unforced errors. You have the quality for that and you have the legs for that, so that's what we're going to start with. And finding solutions for difficult balls. She found solutions for those situations and she really had a plan on what to do for every ball."
"After Wimbledon, I actually told people, to win Wimbledon was a great achievement, an unbelievable achievement, but for her, her clay court season this year was as well a huge achievement. Because she really started the clay court season without a plan and especially without any confidence at all.
"She worked her way in it. She had that injury in Stuttgart and lost a week of practice, but coming from that far and then reaching the quarterfinals in Rome and then in Paris, beating some great players, I think it's going to be a great start for next year because she will have a plan and she will have the belief that, who knows, she can go far in the tournament.
"She's never going to be the clay court specialist - Wimbledon will always be better for her - but at least now she knows she can beat top players on clay and she knows how."
Kerber agreed with Fissette's assessment.
"Yes, I think I understand a little bit now how to play on clay," she said in Stuttgart. "I think what is important for me is the mindset when I go on court, that I'm a little bit more positive with the clay and that I have a little bit more patience and everything. So, I think that I know already how to play, how is the best way to play, but of course, doing this on the court then is a different story. That’s why it’s good to have a lot of matches to get used to the game plan, what I want to play on clay."
Kerber said her goal of the next few weeks in Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome is to find her feel and clarity.
"Of course to have a lot of matches that helps you always to get the rhythm, the feeling, play match points on clay [is important], but in the end it’s how I feel, how I feel the ball, how I feel the game plan, how I would like to play. I think this is the goal for Paris, to really know what I want to do on the court because it is a different story with the clay court. You have much longer rallies, you have to be patient, you need to go for it, you have to slide, you can change the rhythm. So, I think this will be the challenge."