By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Angelique Kerber was born on Germany’s Baltic coast, but for her Wimbledon feels like the green, green grass of home.
Especially this year when she will walk back through the All England Club gates as defending champion.
It is not new territory for the 31-year-old former world number one who on two other occasions arrived for the start of a Grand Slam having won it the year before.
But she has never experienced that at Wimbledon — the title she cherishes the most.
“I think maybe it’s the same but different in some ways because Wimbledon was the tournament I was looking forward to win one day,” left-hander Kerber said at Eastbourne this week.
“I think when I get there it will be very emotional and I will have a lot of great memories. I’m really happy to go back there and enjoy the memories, the people, the place.
“It’s always really special, but especially this time.”
Kerber won the Australian Open and U.S. Open in a remarkable 2016, but struggled the following year.
She was back to her best last year, reaching the semi-final of the Australian Open, the quarters in Paris, before convincingly beating Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final when many had already given the title to the American.
This year there has again been a slump although illness and injuries, rather than the loss of drive of 2017, have been the root cause.
An ankle injury during the claycourt season left her struggling and she lost in the first round of the French Open. That, she says, may have been a blessing.
“I feel much better after Paris, I had 10 days off for recovery and rehab, and right now I’m feeling good, the pain has gone, I’m not sick and I feel ready again,” she said.
“That’s the most important thing for me, to be able to be ready to fight, I’m in match mode. I’m hungry after having a little break, I feel motivation and the energy.
“It’s a good sign.”
After the drudgery of clay, Kerber looked immediately at home on the Mallorca grass last week, beating former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova and grasscourt threat Caroline Garcia before losing in the semi-final to Swiss Belinda Bencic.
Few players move better on grass than Kerber and her stock Wimbledon photograph could be one of her getting low, knees almost scraping the grass, to fire a backhand.
“Grass is more natural for me than clay,” the world number five, who owns a 30-10 record from her 11 Wimbledon, said.
“The serve is a big thing on grass. You have to play different on the first two balls after the serve or the return. The next few shots must be really aggressive.”
The other image would be her collapsing to Centre Court that sunny Saturday a year ago when she completed a 6-3 6-3 defeat of Williams having played near-perfect tennis.
“I’ve watched the video of the match a couple of times,” she said. “I took all my chances that day.”
While the pressure will be amped up in a few days when Kerber leaves the chilled out surrounds of Eastbourne and heads to Wimbledon, she believes she is well-equipped to handle it and start another title quest.
“Everything starts from zero and everyone would like to beat me,” Kerber said.
“It is a pressure but I learned from the other two times I was defending slams that I must just focus on the next opponent, the next step, the next practice, same as when I won the slams. Keep it simple.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)