Sturm and Drang

by: Steve Tignor | December 12, 2012

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What my eighth most memorable match of 2012 lacked in elegance and logic, it more than made up for in drama, emotion, and whiplash-inducing plot twists. With the roof closed, and two German women—I’m not going to say friends—fighting for a semifinal spot at Wimbledon, things got heated inside Centre Court when Angelique Kerber took on Sabine Lisicki this summer. One blonde punched, and the other counterpunched, for three long, roller-coaster sets. In the end, a volatile Kerber pulled it out, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 7-5, in spite of her best efforts to throw it away. We’ve read about how to win ugly; on this day Kerber taught us how to win sarcastically.
Above are 25 minutes of Sturm and Drang from the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
—Kerber, 24, and Lisicki, 23, had already met twice in 2012 before this match, with Kerber winning both times. The older woman is 5-0 now in their career head-to-head. Yet for years it was Lisicki, a Nick Bollettieri favorite, who was the German in waiting. She had the big, bruising game of the future, and when she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2011, she seemed ready for her breakthrough. But later that summer, Kerber, a relative unknown up to that point, matched her countrywoman by making the U.S. Open semifinals. Now the two were fighting to reach another Slam semi.
—As officials there like to say, Wimbledon is still an outdoor, daytime event. They’re right, it should stay that way. But the roof is a fact of life now, and it brings a very different atmosphere to the tournament. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place that’s as transformed as Centre Court is when the roof is closed. You realize then how much the sky, and the way it's framed by the court’s old overhang, is part of the scene. 
Indoors, the ball cracks off the strings and matches sound like slugfests, which may encourage more slugging—Lisicki did her share in this match, as well as her indoor upset of Li Na last year. And when it’s raining, suddenly all eyes are on just two players. That inspired one of the best women’s matches of 2011, Venus Williams’ three-set win over Kimiko Date-Krumm.  
—Lisicki and Kerber may look and sound somewhat similar, but as a pair, they’re an example of the variety that’s still possible within modern baseline tennis. If you put their strengths together—Lisicki’s power, Kerber’s retrieving skills—you might have the perfect player. (Or, come to think of it, you might have Serena Williams.) Lisicki opens this match with an ace, and is the obvious aggressor throughout. When she’s got everything going, she can be spectacular. Check out her big serve/swing volley combination near the end of the second set. 
As for Kerber, her shots can look unpolished and almost rudimentary at first, but after seeing her hit so many of them so accurately, I started to think of them as economical and concise instead. She gets the job done, nothing more and nothing less. And when a lob gets over her head, she’s not too proud to try a hacker’s special: the two-handed, frying pan, back to the net, desperation swing. It doesn’t work here, but it should make weekend warriors around the world proud. Kerber, however, is not as effective from an attacking position. A few times in this match, she fails to put an easy ball away because she can’t generate enough pace of her own.
—Styles aside, this match was more notable for its psychological ups and downs. When Lisicki double-faults at 3-5 in the first, a BBC commentator notes that she seems to have “had enough of this set.” 
But at 0-3 down in the second, just when you think she’s had enough of the match, Lisicki digs in, turns positive, and evens the score. There are few shrieks in this one, but plenty of “Come on!”s to fill the silence. The match reaches its first peak with Lisicki serving at 4-5. She saves one match point with a flat-out backhand winner, and another by beating Kerber at her own scrambling, improvising game. 
In the tiebreaker, Kerber reaches match point again, only to see Lisicki save it again with another laser backhand. Kerber, despite still being tied in the breaker and two points from the semis, raises her hand in frustration. She's starting to lose it. Soon after, she loses it completely by letting a Lisicki shot land on the baseline and skip by her to even the match.
—The third set was one of the years’ strangest, and you can get an idea of why in these highlights. Through the first six games, an unhappy, eye-rolling Kerber, who can’t forget her missed chances, appears to be trying to get off the court as quickly as possible. She doesn’t run after balls, she stands flat-footed and swings as hard as she can, she claps sarcastically after lost points, she looks resentfully toward her player box. Yet you look up and see that the score is 3-3.
—Finally, Lisicki gets a lead and serves for the match. The roles are immediately reversed. Lisicki begins to miss and Kerber relaxes. But she still has her ironic edge. At 4-5, when one of her backhands is shown to be in by a millimeter, she raises her arms in a mix of real celebration and mock-celebration. It’s as if Kerber doesn’t want to to allow herself to believe that she can win, because then she won’t be as loose and will lessen her chances of actually winning. That's a weird and tricky balance to maintain, but she pulls it off.
—Kerber does go on to win, as the hit-and-miss Lisicki goes after one last cross-court backhand and sends it wide. Kerber grunts desperately throughout that point, and she lets out a fierce, cathartic, barely controlled scream and fist-pump when it's over. A long afternoon’s pent-up emotions come pouring out of her. The same goes for Lisicki, who can barely force herself to stop long enough for a quick and chilly drive-by handshake.
—I don’t think there’s a lesson to be drawn from this match, and I wouldn’t try Kerber’s mental approach at home. Any coach who wants to make a point about having good body language on a tennis court should definitely look elsewhere. Kerber proved all of the mental experts wrong in this one; you can, she showed, win a match by making yourself believe you can’t.

Steve Tignor's Top 10 Matches of 2012:

No. 1: The Miracle on Grass: Lukas Rosol d. Rafael Nadal
No. 2: The Struggle Down Under: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal
No. 3: Olympian Efforts: Roger Federer d. Juan Martin del Potro
No. 4: Wooing Them: Victoria Azarenka d. Sam Stosur
No. 5: Tightrope Walk Across Paris: Novak Djokovic d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
No. 6: Winning Like It's 1999: Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka
No. 7: Fireworks: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer
No. 8: Sturm and Drang: Angelique Kerber d. Sabine Lisicki
No. 9: Sculpting a Strange Masterpiece: Bernard Tomic d. Alexandr Dolgopolov

No. 10: Stunner in Paris: Virginie Razzano d. Serena Williams


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