It turned out to be a happy birthday after all for world No.5 Angelique Kerber, the newly 25-year-old withstanding the power of American teenager Madison Keys for her first trip to the second week of the Australian Open, winning on Rod Laver Arena 6-2 7-5.
After Kerber blew through a relatively easy first set, the German had to dig deep in the second as the 17-year-old Keys began to find her range. After winning the opener in just 29 minutes, Kerber needed 71 more to fend off Keys, who hit a blazing 32 winners to her opponent’s 11.
But 43 unforced errors spelled trouble for Keys, a wildcard, who sprayed consecutive balls wide and long to hand Kerber the win.
From the outset it looked as though Kerber would dominate as she sprinted to a 5-1 lead in just 24 minutes. Keys held at love to get the set to 2-5, but Kerber would repeat that feat, not dropping a point in the eighth game to close out the first, 6-2.
Keys was displaying the kind of tennis that Melbourne Park could see from her in the future, nabbing leads of 3-2 and 4-3 in the second set with powerful tennis that moved her higher-ranked opponent around the court with ease.
"She's a very young player but she's a tough opponent for sure," Kerber said of Keys. "She hits the ball so deep and hard that you need to move really good from point to point."
At love-40 serving at 3-all, Keys fought off three points and then claimed the game with a forehand winner gaining the 4-3 lead with a scream of “Come on”.
In the next game, Kerber, a two-time WTA title winner, faced a break point before rain began to fall over Rod Laver Arena, delaying play. It was a stop in play and change in conditions that could change the course of the match, particularly for the big-hitting Keys.
"I wasn't thinking about" the conditions changing, Kerber said. "I was trying to focus on me and what was happening around me. It was faster [after the roof closed] and I just focused on me."
But Kerber won the first two points following the rain delay and then watched as Keys belted a big serve wide and knocked down a forehand winner before cracking a backhand wide, going up 5-4.
It was then that Kerber truly found her back against the wall, going down love-30 when serving to stay in the set. On that point she nailed a down-the-line forehand that was called out, but the lefty challenged the call and Hawkeye showed the ball just clipping the line by the slightest of margins.
That centimetre seemed to make all the difference. Keys would end that game with a forehand into the net, evening the second at 5-all. In the next game, Keys came apart, finally showing her inexperience in a service game in which she was unable to win a point. She blasted a forehand well long to give Kerber the break, 6-5.
Kerber would fight off a break point in the 12th game of the set as Keys missed a down-the-line backhand return on a second serve opportunity. Two more misses gave Kerber the win, advancing past the round where she lost to Maria Sharapova a year ago.
"It was 4-5 and love-30 and I challenged a very important ball," Kerber noted. "It was a very close match in the second set and it was very important that I won it in two sets."
And her reward? A birthday cake and “Happy Birthday” sung to her by the spirited Rod Laver Arena crowd. “Thank you,” she said into the microphone, obviously happy with the win and perhaps with the song, as well.
Kerber’s run that started at the 2011 US Open has continued in 2013. It was then that the German was ranked just No.91 and broke through to the semifinals, losing a three-setter to Sam Stosur. In 2012 she skyrocketed into the top 10, making the semifinals at Wimbledon.
While Keys came out the loser, the 17-year-old has raised eyebrows across Australia and the greater tennis world, qualifying last week at Sydney and winning three more matches in the main draw before falling to Li Na in a tight three sets in the quarterfinals.
"I saw her in Sydney where she beat some good girls, so I knew it was going to be a good one," Kerber said. "She hits the ball like the top players. I think if she works more she'll come up in the next few months."
Asked if she had ever been sung "Happy Birthday" by thousands of people, Kerber said she simply had not.
It was my first time, she said, smiling at the media corps in front of her.
She next gets Ekaterina Makarova, who took down No.11 Marion Bartoli in three hard-fought sets. Makarova took down Serena Williams in the fourth round a year ago.