2017 hasn’t been an easy year for Angelique Kerber. In reality, 2017 would have been a marginally bad year for the German, hadn’t it been for that unbelievable 2016. Up until then, Kerber would probably be on Max Eisenbud’s spiteful list of “journeyman players”, along with Radwanska and Wozniacki. A consistent counter-puncher who never really stood out, won big titles or mesmerized the crowds with her tennis. Her best results in terms of a Grand Slam were a semi final at the 2011 US Open and another in Wimbledon, in 2012. Turning the tables on people like Maria Sharapova’s agent, Kerber went on to win 2 Grand Slam titles (the Australian Open and the US Open), reach the final in Wimbledon and win the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, to end 2016 as WTA world number 1. All in a single tennis season!
While everyone is wondering what went wrong this year, perhaps the focus should be on what went exceptionally well the year before. The German hasn’t been blessed with Serena’s natural power, Azarenka’s assertiveness or Sharapova’s steely mental toughness. Angelique Kerber has worked really hard on her fitness levels for years and dared to transition to a more aggressive style of play. Rather, she blurred out the line between defense and offence, presenting a very complete game, truly enjoyable to watch.
More importantly, she managed to contain her negativity on court, that passive-aggressive attitude which has earned her the “best WTA eye-roll” title. But life can be particularly cruel at times. Her meteoric 2016 success made the fall in 2017 even sharper and more painful than it could have been.
What went wrong for Kerber in 2017?
I have probably watched every single match Angelique Kerber has played in 2017. Many say that this year has been a downward spiral, but I would respectfully disagree. Once more, Kerber has been very consistent throughout the year, since her second match exit in Brisbane, against Elina Svitolina. Only this time, her consistency didn’t have 2016’s positive ring to it, as she went on -week after week, tournament after tournament- unable to shake off the same, recurring issues. Struggling with the expectations that come with success and battling to find her confidence, the pattern of her performances was quite predictable throughout the season. Here are some thoughts on what brought on those issues and why she never managed to enjoy a peak in her form.
The tricky draws and challenging early round matches
Kerber’s losses early in the year were against players like Svitolina (Brisbane and Dubai), Kasatkina (Sydney and Doha) or Vesnina (Indian Wells). Players who went on to claim their biggest career titles or score their highest ever ranking in 2017. The pattern continued throughout most of the year. Kerber lost to Vandeweghe in the Australian Open, Pavlyuchenkova in Monterray, Mladenovic on clay in Stuttgart and Sloane Stephens in Toronto, only a few weeks before the latter claimed the 2017 US Open title.
One might argue that the world number 1 should be able to beat any of those players on a normal day. But there is a fact in women’s tennis that shouldn’t be overlooked. Serena Williams has dominated the sport for far too long and far too undisputedly. Most female tennis players in Angie’s generation grew up professionally chasing after Serena. To finally have to defend that top spot, while scrutinized by unconvinced fans and a pretty taken aback tennis community, must have been tough. Or at least, a task Angelique Kerber needed to warm up to for a while. The draws and match-ups early in the year didn’t allow her to do that.
The target on her back
During Serena’s dominance, winning against the WTA world number 1 was a borderline “wishful thinking” type of goal. Johanna Konta would probably attest to that, admitting to crying after Serena almost hit her off the court in their 2017 Australia Open QF match. And let’s not forget Serena was pregnant with her daughter Alexis Olympia at the time. There is no other female tennis player with Serena’s on court overwhelming presence and Angelique Kerber obviously couldn’t have the same effect as the world number 1 successor. For the first time in a long while, opponents felt they actually stood a good chance of knocking out the top seed, if they played a good match.
That target on Kerber’s back, coupled with her own lack of confidence and conservative style, allowed many of her opponents to bully her on the court. The best example of such a match in my mind was the Australian Open 4th round clash against CoCo Vandeweghe. Another player who went on to enjoy a career-best season, Vandeweghe demolished Kerber, uncovering her weaknesses and showing everyone else how to do it.
As far as the big events of the year are concerned, what Vandeweghe started in Australia was what Naomi Osaka finished at her US Open upset victory against Kerber. It must be hard to feel you’re playing with your back against the wall for a whole year.
The athlete vs. the world number 1 persona
In early 2017, Kerber seemed to enjoy being the world number one and the perks that come with it. She signed several new sponsorship deals, made it to magazine covers and made appearances in prestigious events. Throughout her number 1 tenure though, she never seemed to feel comfortable in her own skin doing any of that. In the commercialized sports world, being a great athlete is rarely enough to become a star that fans and media will idolize. People like Roger Federer or Serena Williams possess a kind of star quality and effortless glamour. With Rafael Nadal or Maria Sharapova comes plenty of drama and intensity. The “joker”, Novak Djokovic, is media savvy and a sports fan’s dream. Even Kerber’s long time friend, Caroline Wozniacki eases into magazine covers and press-friendly events as if born into them.
Now, I’m not saying that whoever does not possess those traits can’t make it to the top. But there are several examples which show that the tennis industry didn’t favor Kerber as a number 1, because she didn’t “sell” as much. From her match scheduling in Wimbledon to the –at times- disproportionate criticism, Kerber soon had to amount to something big in an arena foreign to her. She seemed to struggle to become a worthy number 1 “persona”, instead of focusing on what actually took her to the top: Her persistence, athletic qualities and hard work. The end result was awkward. An introverted and low profile person, forced to become something she is not and failing, all the while losing in focus and confidence.
Kerber’s own mindset and personal challenges
In post match interviews, seemingly unable to explain some of her losses, Kerber often said that she hasn’t changed and she is still the same person who achieved such glory in 2016. Exactly like she was slow to warm up to points and matches in 2017, Angie seemed slow to warm up to the idea that she would never be able to sneak up to opponents again, using her old tactics. After all, a “defending champion” has to be anything but defensive on court. Instead of maintaining the more aggressive mentality and seeking to evolve her game, Angelique Kerber appeared more passive than ever, almost numb at times. Her weapons failed her and her weaknesses –such as her serve- were more prominent than ever, as opponents looked to exploit them from the get go. Even her ever-reliable footwork and agility was below par.
Throughout the season, she dwelled too much over missed shots and lost opportunities, constantly exchanging frustrated looks with her box. Often times it looked as if she couldn’t get out of the court quickly enough. And there was also that sense of embarrassment, stemming from not being able to live up to expectations that were mostly forced upon her by herself. Angie was just too scared to lose, more than anything else. From her incredible 2016 Australian Open final victory, to her first round exit in the 2017 US Open, the main thing that looked different was her own mindset and attitude on the court.
What will 2018 look like for Angelique Kerber?
As painful as it has probably been for her, the 2017 tennis season went by in the blink of an eye. Kerber herself insists that it has been a year that has taught her a lot. Failure can indeed be a better teacher in life than success, if you have the mental resources to use the lessons to your advantage. During the off season Kerber has already made a brave decision to split with her long-time coach Torben Beltz and hire Wim Fissette. Given his track record with Azarenka and Konta, Fissette might indeed help reinstill some of Kerber’s lost confidence and aggression.
For me, personally, Angelique Kerber is the living proof that the Universe does listen and give back to those who persist, work hard and try to be the best version of whatever they are. As with any great athlete though, it is the human factor in their story, the obstacles, the internal struggles and the personal challenges that make them truly great. True inspiration rarely comes from champions who make it seem easy, who score victory after victory and don’t even seem to feel the pressure. There is no greater power than the power to overcome your own demons and those who can do it are even more glorious and important for the rest of us than those who never have to. Hopefully, 2018 will reinstate -not necessarily her former glory, but- the conviction that she is one of these special cases one can use as a beacon of inspiration.
Check out my newer post on how Angelique Kerber managed to start 2018 with a bang!