At Wimbledon, Kerber returns to final after forcing Ostapenko's errors

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Angelique Kerber will move into the Top 7 after this remarkable run at Wimbledon. (AP)

LONDON—This being the United Kingdom, it seems appropriate to ponder a line from a notable 19th century British poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In Sonnet 43 of Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, she raised the question, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

This being Wimbledon, let us alter the line to summarize what happened in today’s ladies’ semi between Jelena Ostapenko and Angelique Kerber: How I do lose thee? Let me count the ways.

Four numbers of note. Kerber hit 10 winners—Ostapenko 30. Kerber committed seven unforced errors—Ostapenko 36. It added up to a Kerber victory, 6-3, 6-3. In 68 minutes, the mover with the stiletto had beaten the shaker with the sledgehammer. For the second time in the last three years, Kerber had reached the finals, to play Serena Williams in a rematch of their 2016 final, won by Williams, 7-5, 6-3. 

Ostapenko believed she was hindered by what she thought was the slower speed of Centre Court compared to the other courts where she’d previously played.

“I think she had really many advantages because of that,” said the 21-year-old Latvian.  “My shots were not that effective on such a slow court.” With similar candor, Ostapenko noted that, “On this level, if I'm doing so many unforced errors, it's not going to work.  Players like Angie, she's very consistent.”

Yet it’s also a breathtaking sight to see how blissfully ignorant of potential consequence Ostapenko is when she addresses the tennis ball. Her fearless brand of firepower conjures up memories of a tale, perhaps apocryphal, about the time the young Monica Seles was playing a junior match and kept lashing away. The umpire declared the match over. Asked Seles, “Who won?”

WATCH—Match point from Kerber's win over Ostapenko in Wimbledon semis:

Though she threw in the occasional drop shot, at heart, Ostapanko was going to go down swinging—a potential car crash or speed record right to the end. With Kerber serving at 5-1, deuce, Ostapenko lined a highly makeable forehand return into the net. Given that Kerber was about as likely at that point (any point?) to serve and volley as I am to fly a spaceship to Mars, it was inexplicable why Ostapenko would fail to hit a service return with ample net clearance.

But on Kerber’s first match point, Ostapenko played composed, bold tennis. On the eighth shot of the rally scampering outside the singles sideline, she smoked a down-the-line backhand winner. Soon she had broken, held at 30 and relocated the once cozy Kerber into a treacherous neighborhood. Hardly known as a terrific server, Kerber served at 5-3 against the worst kind of dangerous opponent: a bold striker who’d been granted a reprieve. 

Said Kerber of her thoughts at that stage, “I was trying to not think too much because I know how she played a lot of good matches where she came back from a score like that, then she has nothing to lose and she is even playing better.”

A long backhand from Kerber at 30-30 gave Ostapenko a golden opportunity. Certainly the crowd, still hungry for more genuine conflict amid the error-fest, wanted more tennis. But on the break point, Ostapenko netted a 94-M.P.H. serve that jammed her backhand. Call it a forced error. At deuce, though, Kerber’s second serve was a 72-M.P.H. lollipop, slower than the delivery of many a fine recreational player. Ostapenko hit it into the net.

Match point number two for Kerber. A second serve. An errant toss. A new toss and a 71-M.P.H. serve, predictably aimed at the Ostapenko backhand. Ostapenko took control of the rally with her forehand. Kerber replied in trademark style, digging out one backhand after another. On the eighth shot of the rally, a short ball to Ostapenko’s forehand hovered near the service line. Ostapenko crushed it inside-out and wide. She had hit a number of great shots—but hardly enough good shots.  

WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 10 at Wimbledon:

The start of the match had seesawed, each player holding break points in the first five games. In the sixth, Kerber serving at 2-3, ad out, the German struck that lefty crutch, a wide slice, for a 98-M.P.H. ace. From deuce, Ostapenko missed a pair of backhands. That was the first game of a Kerber run that saw her take nine of the next 10 to go up 6-3, 5-1. Indifferent as Ostapenko appears to external matter, was she truly missing in a vacuum? Or had Kerber broken up Ostapenko’s intended barrage in her own way? Kerber likely thought yes to the latter.     

“I think you have to see against who you play, then to change your game a little bit,” said Kerber. “I mean, especially Ostapenko today, I was not expecting like too long rallies. I know that I have to do it in the first few shots, to be aggressive, to bring a lot of balls back.”

Kerber is deceptively diabolical, an adroit weaver of spider webs who builds her points not just with foot speed and consistency, but also with the ability to create disturbing patterns—angles, depth, drop shots, the rare but occasionally useful excellent serve and, most implicating of all, that rapier-like lefty forehand that can go crosscourt early and flat or down the line with a beguiling troika of a delayed swing, ample pace and even a scintilla of that long-forgotten spice, sidespin. Don’t ever let Kerber’s swift feet fool you into thinking she is primarily a defensive player.

Where Kerber gets in trouble is when she does something Ostapenko might not even know exists: passivity. A nervous Kerber will back off hitting the ball earlier or harder, instead resorting to life as a retriever. This was the malady that seeped into much of her game in 2017, off the heels of winning two majors in 2016. By the end of ’17, she’d slumped from number one in the world to 21—her first finish outside the top ten since 2011. 

But by the end of January, aided by a semifinal run at the Australian Open, Kerber had climbed back to world No. 9. Currently No. 10, she’ll rise to No. 7 by reaching the final, No. 4 if she wins. Up against the mighty Williams, this resurgent spider will need every inch of silk come Saturday.        

Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.


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