Just five months after Flavia Pennetta at the US Open, women’s tennis enjoyed another fairy tale with Angelique Kerber’s triumph at the Australian Open. The two players have plenty in common – both were regulars in the second week of majors, without ever really being candidates for the ultimate prize. Both were hard workers, who put in the hours in pursuit of their dreams. There is one difference however - Kerber certainly has no intention of retiring now that she has achieved her goal. Welcome to the circle of Grand Slam champions, Angelique!
Angelique the next one to create a Slam surprise
"Let me be the first to congratulate you. I am so happy for you. Make the most of this moment – you’ve earned it." Even Serena Williams, who is rarely used to playing second fiddle at a trophy ceremony, could not contest Angelique Kerber’s Australian Open win. Primarily because the 28-year-old German had earned her success out on court, with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win at the expense of the US legend who was aiming for a 22nd Grand Slam title. And secondly because Serena was echoing what the rest of the WTA tour thinks of the woman from Bremen, as numerous messages on social networks from the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Victoria Azarenka confirmed, as well of course as the other German players, who were delighted that their country finally had another Slam champion after Steffi Graf’s last major, 17 years ago at Roland-Garros.
Just rewards are something that tend to be given out at random in professional sport, but all those who have played alongside Kerber over the years agreed that her Melbourne title was no more than she deserved for her perseverance and her work ethic. In this era of uber-champions (Serena in the women’s game, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the men’s), seeing the likes of Kerber or, a few months earlier, Flavia Pennetta at the US Open hitting the heights is a reminder that patience and a degree of stubbornness can indeed pay off. Kerber was made to wait 13 years from her debut on the pro circuit until winning the ultimate prize on Saturday 30 January 2016. The 13 intervening years can be split up into two chapters – the first nine years of slow but sure progress into the top 50, followed by four years establishing herself in the top 10.
Playing the angles the Angelique way
Her career took off in 2012, when she began working with fellow German Torben Belz who put her squarely on the path to greatness. Her first success came in Paris at the Open Gaz de France at Coubertin Stadium in February 2012, where she surprised observers with her hard-fought wins over Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli as well as by putting in the (very early) hours on the practice courts while most players were still thinking about what to have for breakfast.
Like all those players not fortunate enough to have been born with the stuff of champions, and thus able to rely on the certainty that comes with that kind of talent, Kerber had to make up for it by displaying an incredible degree of commitment. She tried different directions, adjusted what she could (physique, coaching staff, outside advice from her idol, Steffi Graf, with whom she spent a month training in Las Vegas in early 2015) and generally tried to find the path to success for a lefty – already a less common breed – who prefers to play long rallies and high balls, who can run all day and still counter-punch, rather than relying on spectacular winners as her fellow southpaws tend to do. The result makes her a player who is more or less unique on the WTA circuit – the only other lefties in the upper echelons, namely Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova and Ekaterina Makarova, have a totally different style of play – and it certainly helped her on the path to her maiden Slam.
"Show people that I’m not here purely out of luck"
Fortune of course plays a role in any fairy-tale, and had she not managed to save a match point against Misaki Doi, Kerber would not have got past the first round of the Australian Open. And yet perhaps it was the fact that she stared into the abyss and survived that saw her go from strength to strength as the tournament went on. "I was already packing my bags and changing my flight details," she smiled, 12 days later as he held the trophy aloft. "I often struggle at the beginning of Grand Slam tournaments, and Australia is always a different proposition, as it comes at the start of the year, you don’t really know where you stand or whether your winter preparation has paid off… The Australian Open is always a leap into the unknown." Though the match point saved was crucial, perhaps the defining moment came when she "overcame Azarenka in the quarters," she explains. "She was the only one of the top players that I’d never beaten in my career. It made me realise that I could win against anyone – even Serena."
Having never got beyond the semi-finals in 32 Grand Slam tournaments, it was important for Kerber not to lose the final before she even got out on court, through nerves or inexperience. "To begin with I did what I always do, which is have lunch and then head to the gym," she said after the match. "Then I went to my hotel room and prepared my bag for the evening. That’s when I realised that it was something special. I still had two or three hours to kill, and I tried to read a book but I couldn’t concentrate. So I just thought about that evening’s match. I told myself that I had to be up for it, and show people that I wasn’t there purely out of luck." At that level, you make your own luck, by working hard and trusting in your own abilities. And so, welcome, Angelique Kerber – the 45th and newest member of the Grand Slam winners’ club, in this, the 45th year of the Open era.