Sunday 18 February 2018

Classy Kerber signals the start of a bold new era for women's tennis


The 2016 US Open Women's Singles champion Angelique Kerber of Germany. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
The 2016 US Open Women's Singles champion Angelique Kerber of Germany. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Simon Briggs

Angelique Kerber's victory in the US Open final felt like a transitional moment for the women's game, the point when Serena Williams' Indian summer finally turned to autumn.

Since Williams joined forces with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the summer of 2012 she has won half the available major titles - nine from 18 - while Maria Sharapova collected a couple of French Opens and the rest went to a gallery of outsiders: Marion Bartoli, Flavia Pennetta, Garbine Muguruza.

For the past four years, then, we have been waiting for a serious rival to mount consistent challenges. In New York we found her.

We knew that Kerber is a supremely fit and determined competitor, but what she showed in her three-set win over Karolina Pliskova is the ability to back up her own success. She reached three of the four major finals this year and deservedly climbs to No.1, ending Williams' three-and-a-half year reign.

Kerber's game is hardly a coach's dream. Yes, the backhand is magnificent - perhaps because she is right-handed in everything but tennis, and that right hand helps to stabilise the swing - but the forehand is a curiously stilted slap, and her service action involves a twirl of the racket close to her left ear. Technically, you would hesitate to show her style to a promising junior.

However, technique is only one element and there are other factors just as important: heart, fitness, focus, athleticism and, above all, self-belief.

That forehand might be messy to look at, but it is witheringly effective. Time and again in Saturday's final against the much purer game of Pliskova, Kerber found herself moving to her left in reply to a crosscourt backhand. Time and again she sent the ball whistling up the line.

The forehand winner she hit to break back for 3-3 in the deciding set "was really the shot of the match", in Kerber's own view.

"I had to risk a little bit, because this is the only chance I can get. And when I won the point I knew, 'OK, I have the feeling, now just go for it'."

Now the question is how much Kerber can extend her dominance. This is a tricky one, because she is essentially a grinder and grinders tend to wear themselves down as well as their opponents.

In the long term, Pliskova has the bigger upside. Not only is she 24 to Kerber's 28, but she is 6ft 1in tall to Kerber's 5ft 7in, and her height has enabled her to power down nearly 500 aces this season.

Pliskova and the other emerging big-hitters - Madison Keys, Muguruza - will be back. While Williams struggles with her cranky knees, the contest between these young firebrands and Kerber's indomitable defence could define the coming months on the women's tour. (© Independent News Service)

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