“I’m not 18. I was always trying to improve my game and be patient and work really hard. Now to see that work pays off is a really good feeling. You play for this moment,” Angelique Kerber said after her US Open match win.
The perseverance equaled a US Open women’s championship on Saturday, and on Monday, a new world no. 1 ranking for the German champion. She is also the oldest women’s player to achieve the minted ranking for the first time.
Still, she’s seven months younger than her male ranked counterpart, Novak Djokovic. Kerber also clinches the premiere ranking 13 years after she first turned pro.
Hard Work and Grit
The tennis ingénue is gone and has been replaced with seasoned, hardworking, determined grinders who have kept on knocking until they’ve pushed down the door. Angelique Kerber, meet late-bloomer Stan Wawrinka. Stan, meet Angelique, who like you, won her first grand slam at age 28. Amazing that both players emerged victorious again at this year’s US Open championships.
Like the men’s world no. 3, Kerber was never seen as a young prodigy like Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Wawrinka and Kerber were serviceable players who were of course good, and could be counted on to get through the first week, maybe as far as a quarterfinal, at best semifinal of a grand slam.
In Kerber’s case, she eventually made it to her first final, facing probably the most dominant player of all time, Serena Williams, in the Australian Open at the beginning of the year.
Many were expecting a customary win from Williams and Kerber to wilt easily. Nothing had given any indication that she had the grit to close the championship. It was her first final, she had dropped her ranking in 2015, and was a surprise finalist after a mediocre year. Hello, Kerber, goodbye, Kerber.
Wawrinka and Kerber are closers in finals
Except, like her US Open winning counterpart on the men’s side, in her first final, she closed. She stunned Williams, like Wawrinka had done the same to Nadal also in Australia (is there something in the Aussie water?).
There are just a few grand slam one-off winners, such as Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro (both US Open winners) in the age of the Big Four (or Six, considering the Williams sisters, or seven adding in Wawrinka!), and most are not expected to repeat the feat. Kerber had been ranked as high as No. 5 before (in 2012) with just a few titles — and no grand slams — to show for it.
Then came the Wimbledon final this year, with the more likely outcome of losing to Williams, who had clinched her 22nd grand slam, as everyone expected her to do. Kerber’s Australian Open was starting to look like a one-time accomplishment.
Williams was ousted in the first round of the Olympics in a shock early round exit, but the crafty, hard-hitting German made it all the way to the finals against the unlikely Monica Puig from Puerto Rico. As the higher ranked player with the more consistent record, this time everyone expected the Australian Open winner to sail through with the Gold, but didn’t.
Kerber traveled to the Western and Southern Open in Ohio directly after the Rio Games and made it to the final there as well, facing the same opponent she faced in the Flushing Meadows final, Czech player Karolina Pliskova. The heavy play of Wimbledon and the Olympics caught up with the German, resulting in another finals loss.
Was Aussie Open a fluke?
The Australian Open win over Serena Williams was starting to look like a one-time deal. That is, until Saturday, when she reversed the score with her W&S opponent, winning in a thrilling final, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
She is now a two-time grand slam champion, much like Andy Murray was before this year’s Wimbledon win, however with a more successful close-rate: Andy’s won three compared to 11 tries at slams while Kerber’s 2-for-3. By all accounts, 2016 has been a great year for both: Australian, Wimbledon and Olympic finals.
Three important finals and two successful wins (Andy with Wimbledon and the Gold and Kerber with the Aussie and US slams). Djokovic has also sealed two slams this year as well (Australia and French), but not recently, having exited Wimbledon and the Olympics with early shock exits, and of course the loss to Wawrinka on Sunday.
“It’s just amazing,” Kerber said in her on-court interview after the US Open final, emotionally. “I won my second Grand Slam in one year. That is the best year in my career. All the dreams came true this year.”
Emerging from Graf’s shadow
Always in the shadow of her compatriot, Steffi Graf, who had dominated the women’s game so well three decades ago, Kerber is being viewed as a crop of exciting ladies who are emerging as a new transition force in women’s tennis. Pliskova, the now-world no. 6, is another.
Both Kerber and Williams list Graf as their tennis idol. In fact, the 22-time grand slam German spent a few days with Kerber last year when she was at Indian Wells in March.
Kerber has said that the advice Graf gave helped her with her turnaround and she “got rid of my doubts.” She further said, “She told me I was in a good way, to believe in myself, and one day the time will be there.”
As the new world no. 1 and with her second grand slam in the same year, it would seem her time is indeed here. And like a fine wine, she has only gotten better with age.
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