It was the worst-case scenario, and the chilling part was how predictably it had come to pass on a gloomy, rain-plagued day at the 2017 US Open. Angelique Kerber, the defending champion, was knocked out in the first round by unseeded 19-year-old Naomi Osaka. She was not just beaten, but crushed, 6–3, 6–1.
It was one of the final lows in a year Kerber had embarked upon as master of all she surveyed. She began the season ranked No. 1 following a year in which she’d won her first two Grand Slam titles and dethroned Serena Williams. With this loss, Kerber fell out of the Top 10 and failed to reach the quarterfinal round at any major in 2017.
The mood in the interview room after the match was somber. Kerber looked small and distant sitting at the podium where she fielded questions, including the obvious one: now that the Slam season was over, what was her analysis?
“I played not so well like last year,” she said, softly. “And I had much less matches. This is for sure something. It doesn’t give me the confidence when I go out there if I don’t have too many matches before I came here.”
She paused, then added as if she had just hit upon something. “Yeah, I know how good I can play. I know how good I practice the last few weeks. I think I just need matches.”
Fair enough. But in the cruel metrics of tennis, you don’t get matches unless you win matches, and that’s something Kerber no longer seemed capable of doing. How could that be?
Kerber was already 28 years old when she won her first Grand Slam title at the 2016 Australian Open. That made her predictable comment—“It’s a dream come true”—sound a little less cliché, because by that age most Slam-less players have given up on the idea of winning major titles. In addition, few players have ever conquered a history of self-doubt as comprehensively as Kerber did in the course of that enchanted season.
A stealth contender from the get-go, Kerber is German, but with a Polish asterisk. Her father is ethnic German from Poland, her mother is a full-blooded Pole. Kerber speaks the Polish language, and she currently resides in the Polish town of Puszczykowo.
Kerber remained under the radar of German tennis officials and coaches early on. As well, she was overshadowed in a rising generation that included flashier, hard-hitting players like Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges. This group set about rekindling interest in women’s tennis in Germany, a nation that hadn’t placed anyone in the year-end WTA Top 10 since Steffi Graf in 1996.
Kerber had athletic gifts, though they wouldn’t come to the fore until she was well along her career path. A low center of gravity enhanced her outstanding mobility, but only after her lower-body musculature developed. Her timing is an excellent, if subtle, skill, while her ability to re-direct the ball without telegraphing its destination is a talent that developed incrementally. Kerber is a great example of a player who just couldn’t be rushed.
But Kerber also benefited from the truth in that old saw, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The players of her generation inspired, motivated and challenged her, particularly Petkovic, who invited Kerber to train with her at a German sports academy to prepare for the 2011 US Open.
“[Petkovic] said, ‘Just go on the court, play your tennis,’” Kerber remembered. “She helped me a lot.’’
With Petkovic’s support, the 92nd ranked Kerber punched through to the semifinals in New York. Before that, she had won successive matches at a major on just two occasions. It was the turning point of her career, as Kerber would explain in 2016.
“I was playing good tennis before 2011, but I never took my chances,” she said. “Since then, I’ve been taking my chances. I show everybody, I show myself, that I can play. I’m one of the best players in the world.”
Kerber thrives on encouragement and reassurance. She received a similar boost from Graf, her childhood idol, during a training session in Las Vegas, which played a role in her next and most resounding breakthrough, at the 2016 Australian Open.
“[Graf] was just telling me that I’m on a good way, and giving me positive comments,” Kerber said. “She said that I should believe in myself and everything is good.”
Self-belief is a great start for success, but it isn’t always enough to turn a contender into a champion. To that end, Kerber made some key changes as 2016 approached. She ramped up her fitness and practiced with greater intensity in order to feel more comfortable when she began pursuing a more aggressive game plan. She decided to free up her forehand and exploit her natural advantage as a lefthander when serving. While she’ll never be an ace machine, Kerber’s sneaky lefty slice is a valuable tool, one she began to refine.
With newfound playing purpose, Kerber was assertive in Melbourne— and it paid off. After defeating twotime champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Kerber stunned Williams in a three-set final. Williams would get her revenge at Wimbledon, but Kerber sewed up the No. 1 ranking at the US Open, where she topped off her Slam season with a win over firsttime major finalist Karolina Pliskova.
And then it all went away.
There are only two words to describe Kerber’s 2017 season: train wreck. The great unraveling of her game began early. As the top seed in Brisbane, she lost the second match she played. As the defending Australian Open champion, she lost in the fourth round. She lost in the first round of the French Open. Through almost eight months, Kerber was winless in nine meetings against Top 20 opponents. By year’s end, she went just 29–24, reached just one final and didn’t win a single title.
“For sure it’s tougher staying on top,” Kerber said after her Day 2 loss to Osaka at the US Open. “You have always the goal for years to going there and to reaching the top, but then if you are there, you actually don’t know what to expect.”
Maybe we should have seen it coming. Even in her glorious 2016 season, Kerber won just three titles while losing five finals. When chronicling her career-long struggle with confidence, Kerber has often cited the fact that in 2014, she made four finals and lost them all. She’s also referred to having lost an outsized amount of first-round matches in 2011.
Seen through that prism, Kerber’s 2017 wasn’t a shocking season at all. In 2016, she conquered her worst fears and lived the dreams that motivate every player to get out daily on the practice court. It was harder in 2017, and may continue to be a struggle this season for Kerber, who turns 30 in January.
There are a few players who can understand Kerber’s situation, and the most comparable may be Mats Wilander. The Swedish baseliner had never been ranked No. 1 and had gone two-and-a-half years without winning a Grand Slam title when he lit up tennis in 1988, winning three majors and vaulting to the top of the rankings. It was an astonishing rise, but over the next 12 months, Wilander tumbled to No. 12 and was never a significant factor at the top of the game again.
In some ways, Wilander was the opposite of Kerber. He was an early bloomer, a Grand Slam champion at 17 and barely 25 when he completed his annus mirabilis. He later said that securing the year-end No. 1 ranking and winning his seventh major in 1988 left him feeling completed.
“After that,” Wilander once told me, “It felt like all the air went out of the balloon.” After 1988, Wilander reached just one more Grand Slam semifinal.
Kerber has been to the land of milk and honey. In 2012, she ended a 16-year drought by representing Germany in the year-end Top 10. She’s just the second German to become No. 1, and just the second to win the US Open. She’s a perennial Grand Slam contender, and she will always have 2016. That’s something nobody, and nothing, can ever take away, even as she enters 2018 ranked No. 21.
Asked about the increased attention that came from 2016, Kerber said, “I’m trying not putting too much attention on this. I’m trying to really focus on my stuff and my team, on the people that know me. They know me, and they know how I’m feeling and what we are doing and what’s our goal.”
Somehow, you get the feeling that whatever happens from here on, Kerber is going to be just fine.