One year ago few would have suspected Angelique Kerber would have enjoyed quite such a meteoric rise. In just twelve months the German has picked up two Grand Slam titles and dethroned Serena Williams as world #1. She was the undisputed Queen of tennis in 2016, a year which she truly made her own.
Yet 2017 is a new year with a distinctly different set of challenges. And two poor losses in Sydney and Brisbane suggest that the weight of expectation is weighing heavily on her shoulders. The early signs seem to be suggesting that retention of her Australian Open title is going to be a mammoth task.
Worrying Early Season Form
In her two tournaments this year, the world #1 has done little to prove she is performing at her peak. In Brisbane, she scraped through a scrappy encounter with the returning Ashleigh Barty. After labouring to victory in her first match she came unstuck in the quarter-final against Elina Svitolina. The in-form Ukrainian polished Kerber off 6-4 3-6 6-3 to record her second straight victory over the world #1. Less than a week later she was defeated again, this time by another rising star in Daria Kasatkina in Sydney. The Russian won their match in Brisbane 7-6(2) 6-2.
Angelique Kerber suggested after her defeat in Brisbane that pre-Grand Slam form does not necessarily matter. While this may be true of maybe a Serena Williams or a Stan Wawrinka, you feel Kerber is the type of player who needs a run of matches ahead of a major. Two straight defeats was far from the ideal preparation.
The heavy tie-break defeat is a notable concern for a player renowned for her usual tie-break prowess. Last year she held an 11-3 record in them demonstrating a mental toughness in important moments. The 7-2 tie-break battering she suffered at the hands of Kasatkina was her heaviest since losing to Serena Williams at the 2014 US Open. Could this be a sign of mental nervousness or was it simply one poor tie break?
Nerves certainly appear to be entering into the physical side of her game. Her serve has never been the most potent but in recent weeks it has been visibly shaky. Against Ashleigh Barty it was particularly wayward and from just three matches she has already notched up 20 double faults. Compare this to last year when, in her first three matches, she served just eight doubles then this is an alarming rise.
With serving statistics down across the board so far this year, it is difficult to pinpoint what the issue is. It is tricky not to feel that the weight of expectation is creating muscular tension that was not there last season. Furthermore, it may be that the physical demands of a more strenuous year than ever before have taken their toll and the limited off-season has not allowed Kerber’s body to fully recover.
Despite her wayward serving leaving her under consistent pressure from her various opponents, Angelique Kerber was fairly dismissive of it as a problem. After her loss to Svitolina she told reporters, “You know, I’m not worried about my serve. I mean, I know how to serve good and I know how my serve is, and there are always up-and-downs. I know I can improve it, but, I mean, that’s the second match of the year, the first tournament.”
The weight of expectation on and off the court
Something which is not addressed frequently but must have an additional impact is media commitments. Since becoming world #1 the amount of time dedicated to the media will have increased tenfold. While her bubbly personality suggests it is something she enjoys there is little doubt that it is draining to have to spend so much extra time fulfilling running around to do photo shoots and press conferences rather than getting the rest that is properly required.
There were also some intriguing observations made on the latest Tennis Podcast. David Law, Catherine Whittaker and Simon Briggs were recording it from inside the BBC commentary booth on the Rod Laver Arena whilst Angelique Kerber was having a practice session with Julia Goerges. It was pointed out during the podcast that, as the session went on, Kerber was getting visibly frustrated and had a long discussion with her team while being sat down at one point. The curse of reaching world #1 is that you know you have played some sensational tennis to get there. Therefore when you are not able to reach that level it is incredibly frustrating. The German appears to be suffering from that at the moment.
Angelique Kerber’s Australian Open draw
An opening round meeting with Lesia Tsurenko may not seem like the most obvious banana-skin. Yet the Ukranian has started the year solidly with three victories in Hobart before withdrawing against Monica Niculescu in the semi-final. Kerber narrowly survived making an early exit last year when she saved a match point against Misaki Doi in the opening round and this has the makings of a similarly tense encounter.
Should she progress then the next major test should come in round four where she could face Daria Kasatkina. The talented young Russian already has one scalp over the world #1 this year and would be extremely confident if they were to meet. In the next two rounds Kerber could potentially meet any one of a number of in form players. Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina have all looked strong on court this year and all three boast a competitive record with Kerber. The German is 5-4 up against Svitolina, 4-4 with Kerber and 3-4 down to Muguruza. Any one of those potential matches could swing either way.
This of course neglects to mention her many positives. Her superb defensive skills compensate for a relatively mediocre serve and, of course, she is #1 in the world justifiably. Alongside this she remains an extremely positive person and engaging person in press conferences. It just feels as though retention of the Australian Open might be a step too far in what is bound to be an unpredictable Australian Open.
Angelique Kerber faces Lesia Tsurenko at 7pm in Melbourne on Rod Laver Arena on Monday January 16.