It was indeed a productive outing this past week, at the Dubai Open, for Angelique Kerber, who had had premature exits in all the tournaments she had contested in the season until now.
Entering the competition with only one win and multiple opening round ousters to show for her participation in the tournament, the top-seed posted a convincing run up to the semi-final, where an inspired Elina Svitolina and an injured knee halted her on her tracks.
It’s then here that the trail of the storyline surrounding the Bremen native changes drastically, extending beyond her painful losses to the worrying turnaround of her form that has baulked under the weight of expectations unlike in 2016, when she defied and counter-challenged all doubts about her performances.
A hefty comparative precedent
It was always expected to be difficult for the 29-year-old to emulate her incredibleness of the previous season, given that no player in the last handful of years – except Serena Williams – has managed to maintain the level of consistency needed to stem the volatility of the WTA field for longer stretches. And also because Kerber, in spite of all her successes last year, too failed to produce overwhelming one-sided constancy and dominance.
Though there are nothing but fond memories now, of her being the only player since Williams to win two Majors in the same year and of her pipping the American as the World No. 1, such nostalgia conveniently shadows the fact that Kerber was also bafflingly eliminated by the unseeded Kiki Bertens in the first round of the French Open and that the race between both players to finish as the year-end No. 1 was played out even after the US Open, despite Williams’ decision to pull out from tournaments for the remainder of the year.
It was then completely unanticipated that Kerber would start to lose the plot of living up to her billing as the world’s best player in the new year, even before she had begun.
Prior to the start of the tourney in Dubai, Kerber’s win-to-loss statistic for 2017 was four-for-four, with two losses coming in against Daria Kasatkina, in the opening rounds of Sydney and Doha, and one each against Svitolina and Coco Vandeweghe in Brisbane and Melbourne Park respectively. Following her loss to Svitolina in Dubai, her chances of trying to wrench back the numero uno spot in the WTA ranking from Serena Williams were put on hold definitively. It also meant that she was bested by yet another familiar opponent for the second time in the year which connoted the defeat as being far from a cursory coincidence.
Heading into the future, with a detour to the past
At the Australian Open, while the sheer power in Vandeweghe’s game took away any advantage Kerber might have otherwise had in the matchup, her losses to Kasatkina and Svitolina, however, had them methodically breakdown her key strengths and use it to their favour, repeatedly. That both rivals, against whom she had had a positive head-to-head before – albeit narrowly against Kasatkina – were able to get a good read on her game is then a perplexing attribute that the German needs to address. Not only with regard to any potential face-off against them hereafter, but also to avoid any such similarity in outcomes against other players as well.
The unwinding of the Tour onwards to Indian Wells and Miami then offers Kerber a nifty opportunity to regroup.
For starters, the attention has already shifted onto Williams, who will be playing her first couple of tournaments since her Australian Open triumph. On the other hand, with Kerber not having much by way of points to defend – specifically in Indian Wells – she can focus on her preparations well in time before the season changes its course onto other playing surfaces and pressure mounts on her again, this time to throw off the inconsistencies experienced in the previous year.
“It was a little bit difficult at the beginning to get used to everything,” Kerber had remarked introspectively after her Australian Open ejection, before supplementing it by putting forth, “Of course, they are new experiences. This is good, they are new challenges. I can learn from all the other stuff which is new for me. It’s just the beginning of the year. I can still improve my tennis, which is good. I will try my best to come back stronger.”
Between the uproariousness of her achievements and her misses in 2016, the facet of persistence governing Kerber’s breakthrough year that has been effectively downed out. It was her doggedness that thrust Kerber onto the forefront at the 2016 Australian Open seemingly from nowhere, as it was her relentless striving that allowed her to end the year on a high, the likes of which looked to be unattainable at its start.
And, as she tries to balance herself on the tightrope drawn between her recent past and immediate present, Kerber needs her dauntless perseverance to back her up. Not only when she is winning continually, but more significantly when she is coming off a barrage of defeats.
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