The US Open 2016 has been full of surprises in both the Men’s and Women’s Draw. While there were a series of pullouts owing to injuries on the Men’s side, the Women’s draw has been replete with improbable outcomes and dark horses hogging the limelight. Angelique Kerber’s march to the Finale has been the only predictable element and her ascendance to World No.1 has lent Women’s Tennis a new hue and dimension.
What makes her rise to the pinnacle special and donning the hat as the new No.1 pertinent is her ability to have achieved the feat while the Williams sisters are still in the hunt. Both Serena and Venus may not be as consistent and lethal as they were in their heydays but they remain a force to reckon with.
They still feature in the Top 10 of the Women’s Rankings and manage to make deep runs in Grand Slams despite being on the wrong side of thirty.
Angelique Kerber’s game neither boasts of any big weapon nor hinges on sheer power. Consistency is the cornerstone of her game. She makes her opponent play an extra ball and draws errors from them.
Kerber’s supreme athleticism enables her to slug it out from the baseline. Her inane ability to find sharp angles unsettles her opponents and helps her make the most of the open court. However, it is something beyond her technical prowess and solid tennis that has catapulted her to the top.
Most of the top players, at least those in the top 10, have the game it takes to perch at the top of the Rankings. However, it is mental tenacity and focus that helps them take that one last leap to the top of the order.
Angelique Kerber rise to No.1 has been fueled by positivity and self-belief over the last one year. While she became mentally tougher and gained maturity with each tournament, Serena Williams has shown a few more chinks in her armor.
It would be blasphemous to say that Williams’ run has come to an end. She reached the Finals of the first three Slams of the year and won Wimbledon in July to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slams. Almost 35 years of age, the American has been vulnerable owing to some nagging knee and shoulder injuries since the last US Open.
When injuries take over and impede movement on the court, lack of confidence sets in.
At 28, Kerber is the oldest player and just the second German after Steffi Graf to become World No.1. At an age when most professional tennis players start to decline from a point of peak performance, Kerber seems to have found a great combination of formidable fitness and fearsome grit to find her way to the top.
Prior to 2016, Kerber toiled hard to stay in the Top 10. 2012 was a breakthrough year in which she ended the season as World No.5. After a series of poor results in early 2015, Kerber rehired her former Coach Torben Beltz. Beltz not only helped Kerber restore her game but is also the architect of her Champion mindset.
The legendary Steffi Graf, whom Kerber called a great Champion and a great person in her post-match interview of the Semi Final at the ongoing US Open, also had a role to play in Kerber’s success. In mid-2015, Kerber spent a few days at Las Vegas to practice with Graf.
Graf seemed to have fueled Kerber’s self-belief and positivity to such an extent that the results started to show almost immediately.
From being dumped out of the First Round of the Australian Open in 2015 to winning her first major in the Slam Down Under in 2016, Kerber started to script her fairy tale. With the 21 time Grand Slam Champion, Serena Williams, on the other side of the net, Kerber tamed her nerves in her debut final.
On the other hand, Williams was weighed down by the expectations of winning her 22nd Grand Slam and reaching Graf’s record of the most number of Slams in the Open Era. The champion mindset deserted one and embraced the other. The legend tripped and the new Champion was crowned.
After the first Slam haul, Kerber had some excruciating First Round losses in the run-up to Roland Garros. A sore shoulder curtailed her French Open campaign as she lost in the very First Round to Kiki Bertens.
Despite that minor hiccup in an otherwise terrific season, Kerber steadied the ship at Wimbledon where she reached her second Grand Slam Final with a familiar foe, Serena Williams, as the last hurdle.
But this time around Serena Williams had learnt her lesson. On match point, she calmly put away an easy volley into the open court and lay sprawled on the hallowed turf realizing the enormity of the moment. It was the same volley against the same opponent at Melbourne that had sailed wide on Match Point and botched up her opportunity of making history.
Composure and self-belief not only won Williams her much awaited 22nd Slam but also showed that she was a cut above the rest.
Kerber’s post-Wimbledon campaign has been extraordinary. While her outing at Rio saw her win an Olympic Silver Medal, a title at Cincinnati would have seen her take over as the new World No.1 . She fell in the Cincy Finals to the giant killer Karolina Pliskova and made the dynamics interesting in the wake of the US Open 2016.
An early exit for Serena Williams at the Flushing Meadows would have automatically put Kerber at the helm. But Serena being Serena looked invincible till the Quarter Final. She eventually fell to Karolina Pliskova in the Semi Final and after 186 weeks lost the coveted World No.1 Ranking to Kerber.
A few minutes after Williams’ defeat Kerber walked on to the court, fully aware of having secured the No.1 Ranking, to play her Semi Final match against Caroline Wozniacki. Would she get overwhelmed with her new status or put it out of her head to earn a place in her first ever US Open Final? It was a great test of her mettle which she passed with flying colors.
Kerber played an aggressive match against the resurgent Dane, but had a few nervous moments while closing it out at 5-2 in the second set.
She lost the game at love to allow Wozniacki into the match. But it was short lived. Kerber quickly recouped, put her blinkers on and broke Wozniacki in the very next game to book her place in the US Open Final and reassert her authority over the newly attained World No.1 spot.
Destiny has its own way of playing out. A couple of weeks ago Kerber had to beat Pliskova in the Cincy Finals to become the new World No.1. But tomorrow she plays Pliskova as the new No.1, albeit not officially yet, to have a chance at winning her second Grand Slam and to make her feat of being anointed as the new World No.1 a little more sweeter.
It’s a different dynamic but Kerber, with her blinkers on, might just be able to emerge victorious.