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What went wrong for Angelique Kerber during her year-long slide?

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With her first-round loss at the US Open, Angelique Kerber's tumble down the mountaintop is complete. (Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—“Did you see that one coming?”

This was the question posed by the US Open’s Twitter account a few minutes after Naomi Osaka’s 65-minute, 6-3, 6-1 demolition of defending champion Angelique Kerber on Tuesday. The answer that probably came to the minds of many fans was, “Well, kinda, yeah.”

Can an upset not be a surprise? The gap in accomplishment between the 29-year-old Kerber and the 19-year-old Osaka is vast, but the matchup at this moment wasn’t. Kerber has had a bad year, made even more disappointing by the fact that she was coming off one in which she won two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic silver medal, and finished No. 1 in the world. At the same time, Osaka is the type of grip-and-rip power player who can tear through the German’s defenses. Earlier this month, Kerber had faced a similar opponent, Sloane Stephens, and won just four games. There was always a chance, especially with the roof closed and the conditions controlled, that Osaka could do the same thing to her, and she did.

With this loss, Kerber’s year-long slide from the top of the game is complete. She hasn’t won a title in 2017, and she failed to go past of the fourth round at any of the majors. Both of her Slam titles from 2016, in Melbourne and New York, are now gone. Next week Kerber will also lose 2,000 ranking points and drop from No. 6 to roughly No. 14 in the rankings.

At her quiet post-match press conference on Tuesday, Kerber tried to answer a dozen variants of the same, obvious question: What went wrong? When one reporter boiled it down to exactly those words, “what went wrong?” Kerber struggled to find a simple answer.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, I just finished my match...I played not so well like last year, and I had much less matches than last year.”

“This is for sure something—gives me maybe also not the confidence when you go out there, you didn’t have too much matches before you came here. I think it’s just—I need just matches. I think this is the thing.”

Losing early in tournaments, in other words, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It robs you of confidence that you can win your next match. Even worse, if you’re Kerber, it robs you of the chance to play any more matches that week. Like many defensive-minded baseliners, Kerber is a rhythm player who needs to hit a lot of balls to find her groove. She’s not a heavy hitter or a natural shotmaker who can step up and take over any match she plays, no matter how long she’s been away, à la Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

In one sense, Kerber is right: The most striking difference between her 2016 and 2017 seasons is the raw number of matches that she played. Last year, she finished 63-18; with her loss today, Kerber’s record for the season stands at 25-18. The losses are the same; it’s the wins that are conspicuously missing.

You could see the difference in her play form one year to the next at Flushing Meadows. In the 2016 final, Kerber used her down-the-line forehand to fend over Karolina Pliskova. Against Osaka today, she rarely tried that shot, and she finished with just nine winners compared to her opponent's 22.

Again, though, it wasn’t just that Kerber didn’t have her forehand. She needs time to construct points and move her opponent around before she can think about pulling the trigger. That’s what has been missing in 2017, and what was missing today. More surprising than anything else about Kerber’s loss to Osaka was the fact that the grinder wasn’t as consistent as the slugger; Kerber finished with 23 errors to Osaka’s 17. Kerber didn’t construct anything out there.

For the moment, Kerber’s rapid decline robs the WTA of a star. But it doesn’t say anything negative about how the women’s game is played. The rule for years has been that, from Serena to Maria to Vika to Petra, offense wins championships on the women’s side. And that has been true again in 2017: Jelena Ostapenko and Garbiñe Muguruza won the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively, with offense-first games. Kerber’s two majors titles in 2016 were the exception to that rule. Now, as Kerber and her fellow retriever Simona Halep have found out the hard way in 2017, the old rule has been reinstated.

In the end, this isn’t a bad thing: Offense is more entertaining, and thus better for the game, than defense. But it’s still tough to see a player who discovered a way to win with defense lose that way again. Can she find it again at 29?

According to Kerber, yes. She can obviously get frustrated on court, but Kerber has managed to retain her optimism off it in 2017 After losing to Muguruza at Wimbledon, she said she was happy with how she competed; after her loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Cincinnati, she said that she felt that her “fighting spirit” was back. She even sounded a note of hope today.

“At the end, I know that I’m strong, and I know that I will come back strong for sure,” Kerber said. “I know that I will not giving up like this.”

Kerber has been to the mountaintop, and she has slid back down. She may not be a longterm No. 1, but it’s hard to believe she’s a longterm No. 14, either. We were just getting used to Angie’s killer down-the-line forehand. It’s too early to say good-bye to it forever.

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