A Connoisseur's Delight: Kerber beats Kasatkina to reach semifinals

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Angelique Kerber will face Jelena Ostapenko in the Wimbledon semifinals. (AP)

LONDON—Of tennis’ major championships, Wimbledon remains the one where both competitors walk off the court together. Civil. Communal. Respectful. Such are Wimbledon values.

Fitting indeed to have witnessed 30-year-old Angelique Kerber and 21-year-old Daria Kasatkina exit Centre Court together in the wake of what they had created.

The score line will show that Kerber won their quarterfinal 6-3, 7-5. But in the final game, it took Kerber seven match points to close it out. 

Beat your opponent on your first match point and you have swatted away an insect. Win it on your second and you’ll slightly raise an eyebrow. Reach a third, though, and the cut could now become an infection. Four: beyond annoying. Five: Are you kidding? Six: OK, surely this time. Seven: Torture, humiliation lurking around the corner. By this stage, empathy surfaces. One minute you appear to rule the day, but as those match points turn to dust, might the climate change completely? Might jail-keeper become prisoner? To compete is also to relate.   

Said Kerber, “It's not so easy because you feel your nerves, you feel you get a little bit tight, especially if you have your third or fourth match point again. But this is tennis. I think this makes the tennis also excited.” 

That last game had lasted 16 points—five of which had featured double-digit rallies. One of them was arguably the rally of the tournament—a microcosm of the entire match. Kerber served at deuce, having already seen five match points vanish, the last two courtesy of exquisite Kasatkina drop shots.

WATCH—Match point from Kerber's win over Kasatkina in quarterfinals:

Over the course of 25 shots, Kerber and Kasatkina probed, sliced, rolled, drove. Kerber’s forehand went coast-to-coast—the down-the-line slash, the sharp crosscourt. Mid-rally, Kasatkina tumbled, recovered, eventually hitting a down-the-line backhand drop shot that lured Kerber forward. In dashed Kerber. Kasatkina hit a backhand crosscourt pass —but Kerber was there to lunge for a forehand volley winner to earn her sixth match point. 

On that point, drop shots brought both well inside the court—and a lob volley from Kerber floated millimeters long (the kind where the challenge camera zooms in another level closer). Deuce again, a 17-ball rally, ended with a Kasatkina missed backhand. The next point, another Kerber down-the-line forehand elicited an error.

Speaking of that shot, Kasatkina said, “Especially it's tough because it's not really down the line, it even goes a little bit wide, out from you. You have to run for this. It's bounce very low, especially on the grass.” 

If you think contemporary tennis is monochromatic, please closely inspect the eclectic arsenal displayed by Kerber and Kasatkina. At the start, Kasatkina was quite sluggish. Kerber patrolled the court, her feet and forehand shoving the Russian into all sort of poor positions. 

Even then, though, there was a hint of eventual struggle. Kasatkina served at 1-4, 15-40—and then composed a magnificent quartet of points, including a wide serve, a drop shot followed by a forehand half-volley deftly struck crosscourt, a 109-M.P.H. ace and, to close it, Kasatkina’s favorite shot, the leaping backhand. Out of kilt for the first time in the match, Kerber dropped serve. But Kasatkina, back on serve at 3-4, hit a makeable forehand long and then double-faulted twice from 15-30 to hand Kerber the gift of another break and, soon enough, the set. 

Five years from now, Kasatkina might well recall the slow starts and rich patches that often flavored the matches of her youth. 

Speaking about the remarkable final game, Kasatkina said, “My head was just empty. I didn't feel any pressure, any fear. I was just going on the next point and playing, playing, playing. I mean, almost every match point, it was something like crazy things I was doing, yeah. That's it. I think this is the key to win the big matches: just don't put anything in your head, to play with an empty head.”

It is a fascinating dynamic, this matter of body and mind. As much as Kasatkina seeks to unclutter her brain, to see her play is also to witness one of the great minds in tennis. Spin, height, depth, pace—all of these come to her effortlessly, an exceptionally broad palette amid the narrowness of many contemporaries. Yet through the second set, Kasatkina only showed flashes of this brilliance. Perhaps the infamous Centre Court nerves known to affect even the champions seeped into her feet. 

And also, without a doubt, Kerber’s acumen made it all quite difficult. 

“It's really tough to play against her on grass,” said Kasatkina. “Even my spin doesn't bounce that high. For her it's a bit easier because she really likes these balls. She's very strong on this. Even you're returning on the line, under her legs, she can go for a winner, it's crazy. That's why it's really hard to play against her on grass.”

Adept as she is at covering the court and appearing to be a defensive player, Kerber at her best is an aggressor, disguised as a counterpuncher. At her worst, though, Kerber grows tentative, her serve a lollipop, her groundstrokes non-penetrating, her willingness to come to net negligible.  

Kerber’s passive qualities surfaced in the second set. Serving at 3-2, Kerber was broken at 15. Serving at 4-3, 40-15, another game surrendered. Seeking to close out the match at 5-4, further passivity surfaced, another opportunity squandered. And yet through all this up and down play from each, the lengthy rallies were often sublime, capped off in that final game—a tribute to each player’s array of tools and tenacity. Not quite a masterpiece, Kerber over Kasatkina was a connoisseur’s delight, a gem cast into the skillet and mutually polished.

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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