international tennis

Back at No 1 and still losing: What’s wrong with Angelique Kerber’s game?

The German has had a couple of semi-final and quarter-final finishes this year, but her results haven’t justified her standing in the ranking enough.

That Angelique Kerber bowed out of contention in the second round of the Rome Open – a Premier 5 tournament, no less – was quite demoralising.

Most particularly, it was a severely shoddy return back to the numero uno spot in the women’s ranking, after having jousted with a rival, who has not only been out of the season for close to four months now following her pregnancy, but who essentially wouldn’t be resuming her career until 2018, after the birth of her child.

Not her surface?

“I’m not feeling so well on this surface. I think that my movement is not the best, especially on clay. I think my legs are always important for my game, but I [am] really not feeling so good on the clay court,” said Kerber, after her defeat to the Estonian qualifier Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday. “I mean, everybody knows I’m not a clay-court specialist.”

She also went on to add, “I will try to [go] back home and [think], ‘What can I do to be back in Paris?’ I mean that is the next big goal.”

The German may not have intended to distinguish her words as two separate entities when acknowledging and analysing her upset. Nevertheless, the interpretations that have been drawn are definitely two-fold, with her opening statements hitting harder than her latter rationale.

On the face of it, there’s nothing untoward about Kerber’s assessment that clay doesn’t bring out the best in her. For, even by her usual standards of volatility, it’s on clay that the 29-year-old’s performances are more prone to misses than hits. Back in 2016, despite winning her first Major at the Australian Open, Kerber failed to make any impact at Roland Garros, losing infamously in the first round itself. This year too, the three preparatory tourneys she has had played on clay as a lead-up to the French Open – including the Rome Open – have borne witness to this aberration.

Starting her 2017 clay season in Stuttgart, as the defending champion, Kerber lost in the opening round to Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets. She followed up on that result with an eyebrow-raising withdrawal in the third round, in Madrid, when down 6-3, 5-0 against Eugenie Bouchard, right before the tennis circuit moved onwards to the Italian capital city.

However, talking about Kerber’s poor results on clay are still, at best, arbitrary. Because, they don’t present her credentials on the surface in their entirety, just as they come across as platitudes to be passed along, when matches don’t finish in her favour. Additionally, they also counteract and compromise her stature as the world No 1, pegging her to be vulnerable when she is expected to be dominant across all playing surfaces.

Vis-à-vis the 2017 season as a standalone, the superficiality of her not being able to live up to the billing of the world’s best player – on clay – is starker, for her performances have had been disappointing throughout the season, this far.

In a state of constant flux

The two-time Major champion has a 19-11 win-to-loss record in the first five months of the year, with eight of these 11 losses coming against players ranked inside the top-30. And let alone winning a title, Kerber only has one final to show for her position at the top of the ranking. There again, in the sole final she has had reached this year – in Monterrey, which is played on outdoor hard courts – she was convincingly beaten by the second seed, and (then) 16th ranked, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Then, in spite of trying to pick up and sort out the entangled threads of the Women’s Tennis Association, these inconsistencies make it easier to pinpoint that Kerber isn’t that different from the rest of the troubled playing order who preceded her as the world No 1, during their respective peaks.

Like Kerber put forth about trying to chalk up a plan of action for the forthcoming French Open, all these former pros, too, made attempts to come up with a convincing module to help them win Majors, though their conviction invariably fell short of the victory margin in the end. However, while these names – ranging from Dinara Safina to Caroline Wozniacki, with the Dane making a foray anew into the upper rungs of the WTA Tour – never let their despondency overpower their careers, it’s worth wondering whether the same can be said for Kerber?

For, there seems to be more than mere rhetoric in her question about wanting to find solutions before heading to Paris. It feels as though she doesn’t know where to go seeking for the form that had made her so dominant back in 2016. Or whether, she can even go back to being that player she was for that interlude, which now feels brief as it was sudden in its occurrence.

It’s then in this answered questions that the flux that has had long greeted women’s tennis has been heightened, showing it to be more open-ended than the projected result at the end of the fortnight at Roland Garros.

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