Saturday, January 30, 2016

Angelique Kerber, aka KareBear, aka 2016 Austalian Open champion

Nobody cares like a bear
From “Nobody Cares Like A Bear”

Just when the tennis world (myself excluded) was getting over its surprise that Angelique Kerber had reached the final of the Australian Open, the sturdy-legged German known affectionately by fans as KareBear, delivered an even bigger surprise: She defeated six-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams in the final. Kerber's 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory gives her her the first major of her already impressive career.

Was it Kerber's ability to sustain a strong first serve that sometimes eludes her? Was it Williams' obvious case of nerves? Was it Kerber's sometimes reality-defying retrieving skills that had her returning balls from what sometimes seemed like the next court? Was it Williams' loss of what many consider her greatest strength, her serve? Was it Kerber's dramatic transition game? Was it Williams' flubbed volleys? Was it Kerber's well-timed slices?

Ladies and gentlemen: It was all of that.

It happens so much in tennis: The favored player has a bad day and her opponent has one of the greatest days of her life. Except in doesn't happen to Serena Williams in finals. And even when it does, by the third set, the opponent has generally faded into a shadow cast by the overwhelming greatness of the world number 1.

Not this time. This time, the opponent stepped out of the shadow, found the light, and fulfilled the promise of years of hard work.

My name's Grumpy Bear
I'm always feeling blue
If it's not one thing it's another
Oh what am I to do? 
From “Flying My Colors

Commentators on ESPN in the U.S. told us over and over about Kerber's history of having a "horrendous" attitude on the court, and they were surprised to see her remain so calm in the final, even after Williams rebounded in the second set. Of course, those who actually follow women's tennis know that Kerber disposed of her on-court demons some time ago; this was nothing new. And of course, a moderate amount of grumpiness is to be expected from a player of Kerber's nature, and why not?

Cause when you care you’re not afraid to try
And when you put it all together
Then there is a power none can deny
From “Care Bear Calling”

From the start of the match, it was obvious that Serena Williams was off her game. Williams' only true "weakness" is her footwork, which can be a bit clumsy. When she gets tight, her own feet tend to get in her way, and Kerber exploited that factor, frequently hitting balls right at Williams and backing her up on the court. The errors from Williams were mounting, and the momentum was clearly with Kerber.

Howver, the sixth game of the first set was a test of both Kerber's mental strength and her creativity. The German faced three break points in a very long game ten with multiple deuce points. Finally, after failing to convert a couple of game points, Kerber hit a perfect drop shot. Holding another game point, what could she do to make this game end? Why, hit another perfect drop shot, of course!

Kerber won that set while making only three unforced errors; Williams made 23. Not surprisingly, the world number 1 staged a comeback in the second set, in which she significantly cleaned up the errors. When the match went to a third set, it did have the look of a typical "Enjoy your first set memories" Serena phenomenon. The problem with that scenario was that Kerber refused to go along with it.

 I'm flying my colors so that everyone can see
Isn't this the perfect place to introduce me
To say that I'm different
I'm special, it's true

From “Flying My Colors”

If you watched or followed the 2015 Charleston tournament, you'll recall that Kerber's path to the championship was a very difficult one. For one thing, she sustained two injuries. It was obvious that her heavily taped shoulder was giving her problems, and she hurt her thigh twice during the tournament. She went down a set and a break in the second round (her first match), and had to go three sets against Lara Arruabarrena.

Kerber squeaked past Irina-Camelia Begu (the woman who knocked her out of the first round of the 2015 Australian Open) 7-6, 7-6 in a match that was a pleasure to watch. In the final, Kerber had to deal with an on-fire Madison Keys, as well as cold temperatures and constantly swirling wind. And she held forth--close matches, injuries, wind, and all. This was the Angelique Kerber we've been waiting for--the astonishing defensive player who could also be quite aggressive, and who could keep her head about her, no matter what.

And that was the Kerber who stood (and sprinted, squatted, straddled, and crept) across from Williams in the third set of yesterday's final in Melbourne.  When she served for the match at 5-2, she was broken before she could even see a match point. This had to be disappointing, and it had to be even more disappointing when Williams pulled out of a 0-30 deficit on her serve in the next game. Could Kerber still take care of very big business in that game? Oh, could she. The 7th seed prevailed and became the 2016 Australian Open champion.

Kerber is the second German woman in the Open Era to win a major. Unfortunately, the commentators at ESPN chose to make the narrative all about Steffi Graf, who is long retired. During all of the carrying on about Graf, it was sometimes hard to know who had won the 2016 tournament, had you not been watching the entire time.

Rise and shine, get a glow
Cause you know you're gonna shine
Like the star you are, you are
From “Rise And Shine”

Angelique Kerber, who had never before reached the final of a major, is the first left-handed woman to win the Australian Open since Monica Seles did so 20 years ago. She is also the first woman in the Open Era to save a match point in the opening round of a major and go on to win the championship: Kerber saved that match point against Misaki Doi. During the trophy ceremony, when asked about this, the German star said she "had one leg in the plane to Germany."

Finally, it should be mentioned that prior to beating top seed Williams, new world number 2 Kerber defeated two-time Australian Open champion (and an often-predicted choice for 2016) Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Our champion KareBear, strong of body and mind, couldn't have written a more dramatic script for this event if she'd tried. No one could have.


Arsdorf said...

A beautifully written tribute, expressing the essence of Angelique Kerber 2016.

Diane said...

Thanks, Arsdorf!

Todd.Spiker said...

You're tempted to say that now, surely, other players who favor defense will "see the light" and be able to made the tough/correct decisions to give themselves a shot to win slams. I'm sort of wondering if most will actually end up being too stubborn or complacent to do so, though.

I mean, imagine if EVERY -- or, well, more, at least -- players were willing to make the changes to become the best player they can be. Imagine...

Diane said...

You do have to wonder whether this will inspire some talented, but not quite "there" players to make the one or two changes they need to make, whether it's to become "complete" (Kerber) or to make adaptations to survive (Sharapova). I'm afraid I agree that many will be too stubborn, but really, they should take a good, long look at what Kerber did--and in her late 20s.

Despite repeated proof-reading, I realized, a while ago, that a piece got pasted into the wrong paragraph and the original paragraph was jumbled as a result. Corrected now, but it seems this always happens. When you didn't sleep all night. Anyway, it should make more sense now!

Anonymous said...

First Kerber met Azarenka in quarters not semis.

I enjoyed both women in the final. but i feel like the narrative about williams is too much. yes she had nerves but isn't mental toughness part of the game? ESPN just made this about williams not being herself and thus losing it instead of about kerber winning it. and i am starting to believe that these commentators never watch tennis in between the majors (except some of the tourneys they broadcast). they acted like they never saw kerber before and didn't know her development over the years and definitely her good year in 2015. i had a feeling about kerber, maybe like you had about pennetta. there was something in the back of my mind. but i read and heard different people stating that kerber came of out nowhere. please! what we enjoyed was the fact that finally someone took it from williams. nothing against williams. but too many times lately, the finalist had that look of "i'm just happy to be here" or let the third set slip away with glazed look in their eyes. kerber never had that look. the minute she started i knew this would be a battle. something evert said on espn had williams running away with the match because she started playing better in the second. well i guess this is too long but kerber won it. she held it together in her maiden final and played the game she knew. and i don't look at it as the game of her life as other people were saying. she played like she played last year. i saw everyone of her finals in '15 and she kept fighting and fighting.

Diane said...

I agree with you completely, Sunny. I'm convinced that neither ESPN nor TC commentators watch tennis. Their "facts" are generally several years outdated (like the rest of U.S. culture). They make up a narrative then report everything so that it fits the narrative they made up. (Remember when Bouchard was a "lock" to win Wimblefon?) It boggles the mind.

Thanks for the catch. I should get another night's sleep before I post these things :)

Anonymous said...

Just a questions since the rankings should be coming out. because many of the top ten did not defend their ranking, it looks like pennetta and safarova will stay in. (ok my calculations could be off :).) I like pennetta but why is she still leaving her name on? I know you can request your name be dropped (as henin did in 2008 which allowed someone else to be no 1). I guess I feel that someone else could be in the top 10 if pennetta's name was off.

any insight, diane or whomever knows?

Diane said...

It's customary to leave one's name on. Only Henin took her name off.

Anonymous said...

Li Na took hers off also. She was off the next week after the official end of the year rankings. The last year end for her is 2014 as number 9 and if you go back in the rankings you can see her listed 11/3/14 but not on 11/10/14.

Diane said...

Forgot about Li Na. It makes sense to me to take one's name off the list following retirement.