When we think about retired players, we tend to think about them differently than we do when they’re active. We can be more forgiving of their sins. We can take the long view and focus on their contribution to the game, rather than their latest defeat. Instead of watching them in matches, where they’re liable to make unforced errors, we watch them in highlight reels, where everything they hit is a jaw-dropping winner.
After two months without tennis—is this the longest break in Open era history?—it’s starting to feel as if every player is retired. Or at least that’s how I felt while rewatching the 2015 Stuttgart final between Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki. Technically, Wozniacki has indeed called it quits, but she was still playing at the Australian Open, which was also the last tournament for many of her peers. Seeing this clip, though, it felt like it had been years since I’d watched either of these two play.
Maybe that’s why I found myself appreciating aspects of Kerber’s and Wozniacki’s games that I may never have properly appreciated before—starting with their athleticism. For 10 years, the German and the Dane, each of whom has Polish parents, had a see-saw rivalry; when it was over, Kerber led 8-7. Unfortunately, they may be most famous for throwing moon balls at each other in the Indian Wells semis in 2013. This clip will remind you that they did a lot more than that when they faced off.
In a normal year, we’d be watching the Porsche Grand Prix from Stuttgart this week. The tournament marks the beginning of the women’s red-clay season, and always boasts a small but high-quality draw. Recent winners include Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, and Kerber, twice, in 2015 and 2016.
Let’s roll the videotape on the first of those victories.
This clip, created by Porsche Tennis, comes with a highly peppy soundtrack. At first the music adds drama to the highlights, but after a minute or so I find myself wishing for silence again.
Music or no music, you can see that Kerber is more proactive and resilient than normal in front of her home crowd. This was the season before she reached No. 1, and while she had just won a tournament on green clay in Charleston, Kerber came to Stuttgart unseeded. In the second round, the home fans helped her come from behind to beat the defending champion and top seed, Sharapova. They would help her do the same against Wozniacki.
Wozniacki was known for her metronomic consistency and aversion to risk, but early on in this clip we see glimpses of her shotmaking and athleticism. She wins one point with a nicely measured drop volley, and another with an overhead that she has to launch herself backward to hit. Just beneath the surface of Wozniacki’s wallboard veneer was a dynamic athlete waiting to break free.
Something similar can be said for Kerber, who is also best-known for her steady defense. Here, though, see her win one point with an inside-out swing volley, and another with a high lob and a forehand pass. I don’t think I fully appreciated Kerber’s game until I saw it from up close at Wimbledon and the US Open. I had to be at ground level to understand how physical her style is, how low she gets, how much work she does during points, how much power she gets from her legs. On TV, the visceral aspect of her game is lost, and she can look as if she’s just putting the ball back in play.
Another thing I didn’t realize I missed until seeing this clip: the sound of Marija Cicak’s boomingly authoritative commands from the chair umpire’s perch.
Kerber goes down a set, and then goes down 3-5 in the third. On another day, in front of a different crowd, she might have reacted the way she so often reacted: with a sarcastic shrug and a few choice German words for her coaching team. She also might have lost. Not in Stuttgart. Not in the final. When Kerber breaks for 4-5 in the third, she looks upbeat and hopeful, with no sarcasm to be seen.
Since this is a Porsche video, it naturally ends with Kerber driving off—or driving a few feet on the clay, anyway—in one of the company’s cars. Like everything else about tennis right now, I even miss that little ritual, too.