Tennis

Kerber, Azarenka hold edge on Serena Williams in 2016

Victoria Azerenka hits a forehand during her 6-3, 6-0 victory over Magda Linette in the third round on Sunday.
Victoria Azerenka hits a forehand during her 6-3, 6-0 victory over Magda Linette in the third round on Sunday. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Second seed Angelique Kerber of Germany and 13th seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus are the only members of an exclusive, if not official club, on the WTA Tour this year.

Both are the responsible parties for Serena Williams being without a title with nearly three months of the year past.

Kerber, 28, won her first Grand Slam trophy by upsetting Williams 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the Australian Open final in January. Azarenka, 26, upended Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the BNP Paribas Open final on March 20.

Kerber and Azarenka also shared a similarity in their Miami Open matches on Sunday where each squared off against a qualifier in the third round.

On another day featuring uncomfortably hot and humid conditions, Kerber lead 108th-ranked Kiki Bertens 1-6, 6-2, 3-0 when the Dutch qualifier became the latest player here to retire with gastrointestinal illness.

Concern was initially whether Kerber would survive the third-rounder after losing the first set.

“The conditions were tough, and I couldn’t find my rhythm,” Kerber said. “What I changed in the second set was finding my legs to move better and finding my rhythm. I was happy to handle the situation well after the first set.”

Azarenka cruised past 110th-ranked qualifier Magda Linette of Poland 6-3, 6-0 to reach the fourth round.

Neither Kerber or Azarenka were willing to offer specifics on how they’ve managed to be among the few players to enjoy occasional success against Williams. What they would say is it’s a challenging task that necessitates playing your best tennis and requires a strong self-belief.

They are also kindred spirits in confirming their current winning status over Williams this season isn’t about to go to their heads, acknowledging their lifetime record against the 21-time Grand Slam champion speaks volumes: Williams leads Kerber 5-2 and Azarenka 17-4.

“It’s always tough when she’s playing great because Serena is the best player, the No. 1 of the world, and everybody is expecting her to win,” Kerber said. “But I think it’s tough for her, too, because all the pressure is always on her.”

Said Azarenka: “I think for me she’s the greatest player of all time and so whenever she plays she looks like the favorite. She’s definitely always going to be the biggest challenge.”

For now, the Miami Open, which is only into the fourth round, remains in contention as a venue where either Kerber or Azarenka could potentially face Williams in another final this season.

But it’s worth noting that dethroning Williams at the Miami Open, the event she considers home turf, has been traditionally a monumental task. The three-time defending champion has proven to be most prolific in South Florida during her career, having won a record eight Miami Open titles.

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