Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I just wanna be a KareBear like you--the evolution of Angelique Kerber

Photo by Daniel Ward

I remember, years ago, standing on the sidewalk at the Family Circle Cup and watching Daniela Hantuchova--surrounded by empty courts because everyone else had finished playing--swatting away for hours at a pesky opponent who simply would not go away. The other player was like a wall, but she was more than a wall; she was reading Hantuchova's game and responding quickly. That opponent was Angelique Kerber. I had seen Kerber play before, but this match made it clear just how strong her defensive skills were.

Hantuchova won the match 6-7, 7-5, 6-3. She was exhausted, and also somewhat upset with tournament schedulers, who put her on the next morning to play her quarterfinal against Jelena Jankovic. (That quarterfinal turned out to be, in my opinion, the best match of the tournament, and Hantuchova won it, in spite of her fatigue.) By this time, the battle against Kerber was a forgotten matter, but those of us who watched it were very impressed.

It wasn't until 2011 that the left-handed Kerber gained some fame in the tennis world, for it was then that she surprised almost everyone by reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open while ranked number 92 in the world. The German took out the likes of Aga Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to reach the semifinals, in which she lost to eventual champion Sam Stosur.

This "surprise semifinalist" phenomenon is, of course, somewhat of a staple of the WTA. Virtually unknown players reach the quarterfinals or semifinals of a major, and then are rarely heard from again. Not so with Kerber, however. In 2012, she won both Paris (indoor) and Copenhagen. She also reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, beating Ekaterina Makarova, Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki along the way. Kerber finished 2012 in the top 5.

In 2013, Kerber began showing signs of what would become a chronic back injury. Her results were streaky, though she did make it to the round of 16 at both the Australian Open  and the French Open, and the semifinals in Indian Wells. She also won the tournament in Linz.

Kerber's progress was hampered by a variety of issues. Her back went out easily, which was not unexpected, given the extreme physicality with which she approaches her matches. She was criticized for playing too defensively (the same criticism that was frequently given to Caroline Wozniacki), her serve ranged from mediocre to outstanding from event to event, and she engaged in a very high level of negative self-talk during matches.

It was this last trait that looked to be Kerber's undoing. Players do become angry with themselves during matches, but Kerber took this characteristic to a new level, experiencing obvious emotional discomfort for long periods of time. In 2014, Kerber reached four finals on three different surfaces, and she lost all of them. It was, at once, a glimpse of just how good she could be, and just how affected she was by her demons.

Kerber played in one of the great matches of the year in 2014. In the Wimbledon round of 16, she defeated Maria Sharapova in a grueling three-set contest in which Sharapova hit 57 winners. Kerber needed seven match points to win, but win she did, in a brilliant display of toughness against the player who is known for toughness. The German star finished the year ranked number 10 in the world.

Angelique Kerber began the 2015 Australian season rather well, but then lost in the first round at the Australian Open. She then went on an uncharacteristic losing streak and dropped out of the top 10. Things were looking bad for her, and then suddenly, she turned around not only her season, but her entire career.

In Charleston, Kerber had to fight like mad to win matches. She went down a set and a break in her opening match against Evgeniya Rodina, she had to play three sets against Lara Arruabarrena, and won a double tiebreak match against a very creative Irina-Camelia Begu. After beating defending champion and friend/countrywoman Andrea Petkovic, Kerber was left to battle against Madison Keys on a cold windy Sunday on Daniel Island.

Kerber's shoulder was heavily taped during the match, and on two occasions, she would tweak her right thigh. She won the first set easily, lost the second, and went down 1-4 in the third. She then caught up with her opponent and eventually served a love game to win the tournament. It was a dramatic match, and a dramatic moment for Kerber.

It was also the beginning of a new era for the German. She left Charleston and went to Stuttgart, where, in her opening round, she issued Sharapova her first loss ever at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Kerber would go on to win Stuttgart, her second premier event title of the year. She won another premier title in Birmingham, this time on grass, and a fourth just recently--this one a hard court premier event--in Stanford.

For reasons unknown to me, Li Na's "gift" of Alex Stober to her dear friend Petra Kvitova resulted in a relationship that didn't last, and now Kerber is the recipient of Stober's considerable physio skills, which one hopes will help her resolve her lower back issues. Once somewhat of an emotional mess on court, Kerber is now simply a strong, very fast-moving fighter who can outlast her opponents. Her recent defeat of Aga Radwanska in their amazing Stanford quarterfinal demonstrated the maturity of her game, as well as her estimable athletic prowess.

Angelique Kerber is now 27 years old, and is the very definition of "steady progress." Her fans love her fighting spirit and her smile, and it would be hard not to like her outstanding retrieving ability. But there is more to Kerber than fight and retrieval. She is very fast, she can be powerful, she can be quite creative, and she can be dead-on precise at a moment's notice. Every season, she gets better, and every season, she becomes more interesting to watch.

Kerber is currently ranked number 11 in the world, and number 6 on the Road to Singapore. With her Stanford win, she's off to a great North American hard court season start, and she has already proven herself on all three surfaces this year. That's pretty special, by any standard.


Anonymous said...

I think the back problem must be getting better as she has played incredible finals to win the 4 titles this year plus other matches on the way. i am hoping that means stobur is having some affect. there is something about kerber that draws me to her, even in her "moody" days in the past, so i often end up rooting for her. maybe it is that left forehand that can fire winners plus the defensive talent. i think she is getting a taste for winning and likes it. another person vying for the top 10. it seems that women will be coming and going from that special list. who will stay? will vika return?

Diane said...

I like Kerber, too; she just shows you everything. And she is multi-talented, able to do so many things well. I'm very glad for her. She was so popular in Charleston this year after she fought so hard (and with injuries) to win the event.

I wonder about Vika because, with Vika, it's always "something." But I'm optimistic.