World number one, Angelique Kerber will contest her first final of the season, as she battles Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final of the Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey on Sunday.
This is a repeat of the 2013 Monterrey final, which Pavlyuchenkova won in three sets to claim the title for the third time. The enigmatic Russian is a bit of a legend in these parts, following her triumphs in 2010, 2011 and 2013, making her easily the most successful woman in the tournament’s history.
Can she repeat the trick against Kerber, and complete a quartet of titles at the tournament?
Kerber is not only after her first Monterrey title, the German left-hander is also seeking the first title of an underwhelming season. Backing up her stellar 2016 was always going to be difficult, but after a really slow start, the 29-year-old is beginning to show flashes of the form that propelled her to two Grand Slam titles and the number one ranking in 2016.
At the start of the year, Kerber won just one match in Brisbane and Sydney combined, and her stuttering Australian Open title defence ended with a limp straight-set surrender against CoCo Vandeweghe in the fourth round. More misery was to follow in Doha, as she suffered an opening round defeat to Daria Kasatkina (the second time she would be beaten by Kasatkina this season), but the first real signs of life finally appeared in Dubai, where she dispatched the dangerous trio of Mona Barthel, Monica Puig and Ana Konjuh in straight sets before falling to Elina Svitolina in the semi-finals- she was hampered by a knee injury in that loss.
Kerber ran into an inspired Elena Vesnina in the fourth round at Indian Wells, before falling to Venus Williams in the quarter finals in Miami.
The German briefly surrendered the number one ranking to Serena Williams after the latter won the Australian Open in January, but Serena has been inactive since then, allowing the German to reclaim the ranking despite her poor form.
However, Kerber has been in decent form in Monterrey. She made an uncertain start to the tournament, dropping the first set against the Italian veteran, Francesca Schiavone, but she has won eight straight sets since then, dispatching Mandy Minella, Heather Watson and Carla Suarez Navarro to reach her first final of the season. Kerber made a rapid start in her semi-final against Suarez Navarro, opening up a 4-1 lead, but the top seed was pegged back by her Spanish opponent, who recovered the double break. Kerber broke again for the chance to serve for the set at 6-5, but she again faltered on the line as Suarez Navarro broke back to force a tie break, but the top seed eventually came through 8-6 in the breaker after just over an hour.
The second set was less competitive, as Kerber raced through in double quick time to set up a final with Pavlyuchenkova.
Now ranked sixteenth in the world, Pavlyuchenkova is slowly creeping up to her career-high ranking of 13 after compiling a decent campaign so far in 2017. After losing her first match of the season to Julia Goerges in Auckland, the powerful Russian reached successive quarter finals in Sydney and the Australian Open. She won just one match in the Middle Eastern double-header in Doha and Dubai, but she put together another quarter-final run at Indian Wells- a result which shot her back into the top 20. Miami wasn’t so profitable for Pavlyuchenkova, as she fell in the third round to American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
A return to the familiar scenes of Monterrey has again brought out the best in the 25-year-old, who has gone past Tatjana Maria, Kristie Ahn, Timea Babos and Caroline Garcia to reach the final for the fourth time. Pavlyuchenkova required treatment on her left thigh at the end of a dominant first set against Garcia; and after a tight beginning to the second set, the Russian got the decisive break in the seventh game, and went on to seal a comprehensive victory on her first match point.
The Monterrey final will be the ninth meeting between Kerber and Pavlyuchenkova, with the world number one enjoying a 5-3 advantage from the previous eight installments. Kerber has also won the last three matches between the pair without dropping a set. However, that is countered by Pavlyuchenkova’s amazing record in Monterrey. The Russian, with three titles to her name is the only woman to have won in Monterrey more than once, and she did defeat Kerber in one of those finals. Kerber is understandably keen to cast aside memories of that 2013 final.
"It's a completely new year, so I will not think about my last final here," Kerber said. "It was three years ago, and anything is possible. I'm going out there tomorrow to try to play my best tennis and try to win the match."
Both ladies have a pretty clear game plan, with Pavlyuchenkova looking to hit the covers off the ball, and Kerber utilizing her athleticism to force the extra ball over the net and goad the Russian into errors. Kerber will also try to be aggressive when the opportunity arises, but you feel she will have a lot more defending to do given the power that comes off her opponent’s racket. It’s one of those match-ups when you feel if Pavlyuchenkova finds her range, she can hit Kerber off the court.
One critical factor could be the state of Pavlyuchenkova’s body- she complained of fatigue after her semi-final victory over Garcia; not the sort of feeling you want to take into a potentially physical match against the world number one.
Pavlyuchenkova’s record in Monterrey makes her an enticing choice, but I’m pitching my tent with Kerber here. Her retrieving skills should be just too much for the Russian, who can get really erratic under pressure.