World number one Angelique Kerber has not started 2017 the way she should have wanted to. She has not won back-to-back matches so far, furthermore, the German has returned to the Australian Open, where she had her finest moment in the Rod Laver Arena, defeating Serena Williams in a three-set thriller last year. The two-time Grand Slam champion is defending a Grand Slam title as the world number one for the first time in her career.
Facing Kerber on the other side of the net will be her compatriot Carina Witthoeft. Witthoeft is currently ranked at 87 in the world, formerly ranked at a career-high ranking of 49. The German was formally coached by Kerber's current coach, Torben Beltz. Witthoeft's 2017 season has been at the ITF events in Brisbane, where she reached the final, losing to Destanee Aiava, and she defeated Denisa Allertova but lost to Irina Falconi in Sydney.
How they got here
The defending champion began her title defence against Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko. Tsurenko is no pushover as she reached the fourth round at the US Open last year, Defeating 2014 finalist Dominika Cibulkova en route. Kerber was cruising in the first set against Tsurenko, taking it 6-2, however, in the second set, Kerber held a match point to win the match in straight sets but she failed to convert it, and subsequently, Tsurenko won the second set 5-7. Moreover, the two-time Slam champion overcame the adversity she faced and halted Tsurenko's campaign in three sets, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. Kerber will have been relieved that history would not repeat itself as the German saved one match point in her first round match with Misaki Doi last year, and the same thing almost happened to her.
Witthoeft has reached the third round at Grand Slams on three occasions, doing so at the Australian Open two years ago, and back-to-back at Wimbledon and the US Open. The world number 87 defeated Japanese qualifier Eri Hozumi in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6 (8).
Kerber and Witthoeft have met on two occasions and both of their meetings have taken place at Wimbledon in the last two years. The top seed thrashed Witthoeft in their first round meeting in 2015, 6-0, 6-0. However, their second encounter, last year was closer to Witthoeft having a set point against Kerber but failed to convert it. The elder German went on to defeat her compatriot, 7-6 (11), 6-2, en route to reaching her second Grand Slam final of the year at Wimbledon.
The world number one comes into this match as the heavy favourite, and with more pressure than her opponent. Kerber will want to re-assert her authority in this match, and showing a more clinical performance, in order to send out a message to her rivals. The 28-year-old's path to the final is doable but a potential quarterfinal meeting with Garbine Muguruza could see Kerber's title defence end early. Moreover, Svetlana Kuznetsova could meet Kerber in the semifinals and cause her more problems but a final with Serena Wiliams or Karolina Pliskova, two players she beat to win Slam titles, could be an exciting prospect.
Witthoeft is an aggressive player who likes to dictate play from the baseline and she has a powerful serve, however, Kerber's one of the best returners in the women's game, and she is extremely fit, and she will extend the points in long rallies to her advantage. The match with Tsurenko would have been a wake-up call for Kerber, and expect the 28-year-old to come through this match with a victory on her 29th birthday.
This will be the second match scheduled in the Rod Laver Arena, following the conclusion of the first round match between Venus Williams and Stefanie Voegele. The winner of this third round match will play 27th seed Irina-Camelia Begu or Kristyna Pliskova.
Prediction: Kerber in straight sets