There are shots in tennis that tell you how a player is doing, how confident she is, how comfortable she is out there on the court. With Angelique Kerber, this shot is her forehand, hitting the longline, flat and fast. The shot is risky, the timing must be right. So if Kerber pushes over the baseline during a rally, into the field, if she dares to take the shot and hit it – then she’s a danger to any opponent.
On Wednesday night, during her first round at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, many such Kerber advance hand hissed over the net, unattainable for her opponent Anett Kontaveit from Estonia, who after all is sixth in the world rankings. Kerber’s shots were too safe for her, too accurate – but only for one sentence. In sets two and three, Kerber also hit a pair of forehands that were worth seeing, but many ended up from the hook or into the net. Eventually, Kerber emerged as a player who does not find her best shot when she needs it most.
She lost 6: 3, 4: 6, 4: 6, and this defeat tells a little story about the big problem that has occupied Kerber for weeks. She plays properly, sometimes really good tennis. She pushes strong opponents to their limits – but she does not win. “In the end, one or two points decided it again. Unfortunately not for me,” Kerber said after the game. One of the more painful experiences for a tennis player is to see the finish line in a match, but regularly stumble before it.
Kerber, 34, has now done this in three games in a row. The week before the tournament in Stuttgart, she played in Kazakhstan in the Billie Jean King Cup, the successor to the Fed Cup. She lost to Yulia Putintseva 6: 3, 3: 6, 2: 6. Against Jelena Rybakina, 19th in the world rankings, she even earned to win the match in the third round with a lead of 5: 3 – the set ended 5: 7. Of course, narrow defeats are better than being swept off the field 6-1, 6-1. But if you fail too often, you might think about it in the next crucial situation. “Ultimately, you have to win such battles,” Kerber said. You know what it’s like: “You need a fight that gives me this sense of accomplishment, this confidence.”
In 2022, Kerber has won only two matches
She will have to find that feeling sooner rather than later because her entire season needs a turnaround. Stuttgart’s early defeat is the next milestone on Kerber’s difficult road to somehow find this year 2022. Thrown back in preparation for a corona disease, Germany’s best tennis player lost in the first round at the Australian Open, in Doha and in Miami. Although she is still number 17 on the world rankings, if you only count the points achieved this year, she would be in place 96. And in the second half she now has to defend many points so as not to slip.
Kerber won only two matches in 2022, in Indian Wells, where she finally lost to Iga Swiatek. She managed the farm to take a sentence from world number one. No other players have done so since then. But in the end, it was there again: a three-set defeat.
Tennis is a constant struggle to find the right balance between attack and security. Kerber has the ability to bring both rods into the optimal balance. Then she defends herself evenly, almost flawlessly. Then she attacks when time demands. In this Zen mode, Kerber has won three Grand Slam tournaments. And Kerber had given this goal before this season, where she has so far traveled without a coach: that she “wanted to get involved in the big tournaments for the big titles”.
In the match against Kontaveit, there were phases where Kerber indicated that their game could reach this level. She defended, she attacked, she fought back when she was far behind in the third set. “She played really well,” Kontaveit said. What was missing was consistency. Especially in the crucial situations, Kerber made small mistakes. She gave up her first service game in the third set with a double fault – eventually she missed this game.
As she sat in front of reporters after the match, all in black, Kerber looked crushed. “Of course it’s sad that I can not continue playing here now. It was such an important tournament for me,” she said. She won in Stuttgart in 2015 and 2016, the faster indoor conditions fit her playing style better than the slow outdoor gravel pitches that will be played on in the coming weeks.
Kerber then said she was feeling well on the court and that she was physically fit. Basically, the only thing missing is the feeling of winning a close match again.