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Tuesday, 13 September 2016 09:15 AM BST
The story behind Kerber's rise
Steve Tignor explains why we shouldn't be too surprised by the German's rapid ascent this season. READ MORE

The congratulatory notes and tweets that Angelique Kerber received after her US Open win on Saturday could be summed up in one word: “Wow.” There was applause for what the 28-year-old German had accomplished, mixed with a hint of happy surprise at far she had come.

Wow, indeed. What else can you say about Kerber’s season? When it began, she was ranked No.10 and had never reached a Slam final in 12 years on tour. The late-blooming German had won her share of mid-level tournaments. But majors? Those were for the WTA’s big hitters and Hall of Famers; mostly, they were for Serena Williams. So how, in the span of eight months, had Kerber taken Serena’s No.1 spot, won two Slams, and virtually guaranteed her own place in the Hall of Fame?

With hindsight, Kerber’s rise may not seem quite as meteoric as it does right now. Unexpected? Yes. Out of the blue? No.

In 2015, Kerber laid the ground work for her ascent by winning four titles, and losing one epic-but-encouraging match against Victoria Azarenka at the US Open. Coming into 2016, she and her coach Torben Beltz knew what they needed to do to take the next step. Kerber had always been a world-class athlete, but she was an instinctively defensive tennis player. In women’s tennis, unlike in other sports, defence doesn’t win big championships. While Serena dominated the Slams in 2015, Kerber couldn’t get out of the third round at any of them. So she and Beltz worked on adding some punch to her traditional counter-punch.

“There were a lot of matches last year where I knew that I have to be aggressive to win it,” Kerber said. “... [But] to make the transfer is not so easy.”

Still, coach and player had good reason to be optimistic that, even in her late 20s, she could make significant improvements. This was a woman who hadn’t reached her first Grand Slam semi until she was 23, and who had won just three titles in her first decade on tour. Plus, she had no trouble going on the offensive in practice. It was making the “transfer” in matches that was tricky.

The new year began auspiciously, with a run to the final in Brisbane, where she lost to Azarenka. But at the tournament that mattered, the Australian Open, it looked like her pattern from the previous year—deep runs at smaller events, early exits at major ones—was destined to continue. In the first round in Melbourne, Kerber faced match point against Misaki Doi. A service winner saved it, but at the time Kerber had no idea how much she had just saved. “After that, everything starts this year,” she would say with a smile as she held the US Open trophy in September.

Kerber would go on to win her first major title at the Aussie Open, and she would do it in style, by rifling passing shots past Serena in a three-set final. But the crucial match, and arguably the the key to her season, came two rounds earlier, when she knocked off Azarenka in two sets in the quarters.

This was a milestone win for the German. She had lost all six of her previous matches against Azarenka; a couple of them had been close, including that excellent, three-set encounter in the third round at the US Open the previous fall. Even in defeat, Kerber had thrived on the big stage in Ashe Stadium. She wanted more of it, and she knew then that her game could stand up to the imposing Azarenka’s. But when that match in Ashe was over, Kerber felt like she had “really just pushed the balls” back across the net. She didn’t let herself make that mistake in Melbourne.

“I can’t actually describe this in words,” Kerber said after beating Vika. “I said to myself, ‘Just go for it today, and believe that you can beat her.’

“I was playing my game from the first point. I was more aggressive this time. She doesn’t lose it. I actually win it.”

Kerber’s attitude toward what constituted “her game” had undergone a shift. Aggression, pace, proactive point construction: These weren’t things she was trying to add; in her mind, they were her game.

Eight months later, as she prepared to walk back on the big stage in Ashe Stadium for the US Open final, Kerber still thought of her game that way. 

Asked what she would need to do to beat another imposing, hard-hitting opponent, Karolina Pliskova, Kerber said, “Go for it, being aggressive.”

Kerber hadn’t always managed to live up to that vow in the months since her Melbourne breakthrough. At first, she struggled with the heightened expectations that came with her success. Through the spring, she lost five first-round matches, including one at the French Open. But she caught fire again on grass and reached her first Wimbledon final. That momentum continued at the Olympics in Rio, where she won a silver medal, and in Cincinnati, where she came within one match of the No. 1 ranking.

But Kerber left both of those events disappointed. In Rio, with gold on the line, she allowed 34th-ranked Monica Puig to rise to the occasion and hit her off the court. In Cincy, with the No.1 ranking on the line, she folded in 62 minutes to Pliskova.

Now, with the Open title on the line, Kerber again wasn’t being aggressive. Her final with Pliskova was tied at 3-3 in the third set, and Kerber’s shots were finding the net. Finally, at 30-30, she found herself with an open court for a down-the-line forehand.

“When I was going down the line,” Kerber said, “I knew, ‘OK, now I have to risk a little bit, because this is the only chance I can get.”

Kerber took her chance, and the ball landed on the sideline for a winner. The game, the set, the match, the title, and the No.1 ranking were soon hers.

Kerber kept her vow of aggression, and it has taken her to heights she hadn’t seriously dreamed of reaching in the past. But that forever-to-be-famous forehand against Pliskova also showed why we shouldn’t be all that stunned by her 2016 success. Kerber has always owned that shot. Like the rest of her game, she just had to find the nerve to use it when it mattered most.

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