CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Angelique Kerber didn't really like playing on clay. That's changed in a big way Sunday when the fifth-seeded German rallied past American Madison Keys to win the Family Circle Cup.
The 27-year-old Kerber trailed 4-1 in the final set, yet took six of the last seven games to pull out a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory for her fourth career WTA title and first on the slow, gunky coating power players love to hate.
"You know, it was never my favorite surface," Kerber said. "But it's changed in the last year. I knew that I can play also on clay and it's good also for my (overall) game because I'm playing defensive and being aggressive."
Kerber showed both those qualities against the power-hitting Keys, who came into the final without dropping a service game. Kerber broke Keys in the first game and five times overall, relentlessly sending 120 mph serves and sizzling groundstrokes back that had gone for winners earlier in the week.
Still, it was a frustrated Kerber in the third set who needed a good talking to from coach Torben Beltz to refocus and re-strategize. He told Kerber to up her aggressiveness and take the game to Keys, something that happened early on but not in the middle part of the match.
Kerber listened and pulled off the stunning comeback.
"She completely lifted her level and it total changed right then," Keys said.
Kerber won 12 of the next 16 points to tie the decisive set at 4-all. Keys moved in front one last time at 5-4 before Kerber dug in one last time to take control and fully unnerve the previously steady Keys.
Kerber tied the set at 5-all on three errors by Keys. Kerber held off four game points in the next game to break Keys' serve a fifth and final time and move in front 6-5. Kerber took the final game at love with Keys hitting into the net and hitting out — Keys finished with 57 unforced errors nearly triple Kerber's 21 — to give Kerber the victory.
Kerber fell on her back and covered her face in celebration when Keys' final shot sailed long.
"To win here in Charleston, it feels great," she said. "I had a great week."
Keys, seeded seventh, entered the final on a strong run. She had dominated four opponents in reaching her first clay-court final. But Kerber was just as relentless at keeping the ball in play and counting on Keys' aggressiveness to lead to mistakes on the slow surface.
Kerber broke serve three times in a surprisingly quick opening set. Keys found her footing in the second set to tie the match. She moved Kerber from side to side and used her powerhouse forehand to gain control. That continued into the third set and she built a 4-1 lead.
Keys consistently hit serves topping 100 mph. Her consistency, though, didn't match Kerber's. Keys made only 66 percent of her first serves while Kerber proved steady at 83 percent.
It was the second straight knockdown final for Keys and Kerber. Keys outlasted the German in three sets to win her only WTA title, at Eastbourne last June. Keys acknowledged she was nervous starting out Sunday in trying for her second title. She believes she'll take the lessons learned in her successful week and apply them to the rest of the season.
"If you can't be first, I guess it's OK to be second," Keys said, smiling.
Kerber, ranked 16th in the world, hopes the Family Circle win can kick start a big season. It happened a year ago to her close friend, Petkovic, who won twice more after her title here and went from 39th in the world to 11th this week.
"'I worked very hard in the last few weeks and every single match here I played very good," she said. "So I'm looking forward and I think I have for sure the confidence that the next tournament will be going good, too."
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