By Tumaini Carayol
(April 27, 2013) STUTTGART – In a world where the phrase “counterpuncher” has become maimed and warped beyond reason and measure, Angelique Kerber epitomizes the word in its simplest form. The difference between Kerber and the numerous defensive retrievers the phrase is tossed indiscriminately at is clear; while the German too attempts to initiate points with consistency and high margin, Kerber’s ultimate aim isn’t simply to await errors and grind her opponents into submission. In stark contrast, she surrenders the initiative to her opponent in the hope they they will arm her with pace to allow her to attack.
It’s a strange and unique approach to tennis, and made even more bizarre by the manner in which she achieves it. For one, she isn’t even a particularly consistent player. Her faulty technique often leads to both forehand and backhand easily breaking down under pressure, particularly when static. However, her speed deceitfully creates an environment in which her opponents feel it imperative to take risks, inadvertently tossing the advantage straight to German. Conversely, against players who offer her zero pace, the German almost always struggles.
Moreover, conventional wisdom states that players whose strength is to redirect the opponent’s pace are usually armed with pin-point footwork and smooth, seamless technique in order to properly deal with the qualities thrown at them. Kerber, meanwhile, can be found contorting her body into unimaginable positions and taking large and awkward steps that put her only roughly in the direction of the ball. Despite that, over the past eighteen months, the German has proven herself the most spectacular in the world when on the run, with her ability to change directions and create spectacular angles and shotmaking on the run the driving force behind her ascension to the top five.
During the early stages of her battle against Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart, however, such spectacle was far from view. After two lackluster matches which far more readily showcased her mental strength clearly than anything resembling her best tennis, the Russian arrived with much to prove. From the very first game, she attacked with brutal depth, precision and weight of shot. As is often the case with Sharapova, it’s that precision and weight of shot that sets her apart from the crowd rather than her often overrated power, and during the early exchanges, she simply overwhelmed her opponent and left the German incapable of countering or punching in any capacity.
But there was something strange about Sharapova’s start. It was almost as if, after defeating Ana Ivanovic a round earlier, she had absorbed the Serb’s game as her serve and forehand dominated proceedings. It’s no secret that both strokes are so often the undoing of the Russian, so when the forehand did begin to unravel, nobody bothered to feign surprise. Meanwhile, Sharapova’s famously majestic backhand was nowhere to be seen as she alternated between spraying errors and avoiding her backhand-down-the-line at-all-costs, which only created yet more problems. With her trademark weapon missing in action and the rest of her game following in its wake, shortly after securing the first set 6-3 Sharapova was suddenly struggling to win games.
Much of the blame rested on Kerber’s shoulders, however. As Sharapova’s length slowly declined in the second half of the first set and offered the home favorite breathing space, the German snatched her opportunity and began to weave her web, transforming the match from what resembled a one-sided boxing match into a track meet. As is often the case in her matches, the match began to closer resemble a training drill as Kerber expertly used the the angles of the course to force Sharapova on the run, the Russian having no choice but to reply with desperate down-the-line shots. A couple of spectacular Sharapova shots followed, but there’ is usually only ever one victor of such drills, and it isn’t the slow player covering more ground and taking greater risks. As Kerber eased through the second set 6-2 and established a 2-0 third-set lead with seven straight games, it was clear the scoreboard agreed.
It was here that the most interesting moment of the match occurred Down 0-2 in the third set and staring into the abyss of defeat, Sharapova briefly departed from the previous two sets of the match. Suddenly she was rolling her serves in and opted for more topspin and height on her groundstrokes, re-establishing the depth and regaining her timing. Though this brief interlude lasted a mere game, it was enough to right Sharapova’s turbulent ship and send her powering through the following three games. Such an adjustment from the world number two would not happen on a hardcourt.
As the momentum tipped heavily back in the defending champion’s favor, the battle reached its glorious peak. Out of nowhere, both reverted back to what they do best. Sharapova’s backhand finally arrived in Stuttgart as she uncorked an assault of brutish winners from that side. Meanwhile, Kerber desperately and gallantly defended her serve, absorbing and redirecting the immense pressure Sharapova was inflicting on her, and amassing some impressive winners in the process. Against all odds, it was Kerber who emerged victorious in that lengthy game, leveling the match at three-all.
This proved only a momentary set-back for Sharapova,however, as she powered though the following two games to establish a 5-3 lead. Similarly to Ivanovic’s semi-comeback a day earlier, Kerber took her final stand and leveled back the match at 5-5, but Sharapova once again exhibited the resilience that made her a champion as she broke back immediately and finally closed the contest out.
Afterwards, when asked whether she was prepared for a potential fourth straight three-setter in the title match, three words from Sharapova summed up exactly why she has achieved such great and undeniable success over the course of her career.
“Whatever it takes,” she said. “Whatever it takes.”