Angelique Kerber Clinches the 2016 Australian Open Title

For the first five years of her career Angelique Kerber did not manage to win a title. Over the years, the 28 year old German -who turned professional back in 2003- has been a force to reckon with at non-slam events. At the slams, while she did have some good wins on-and-off (the one against Sharapova at Wimbledon 2014 comes to mind), those were few and far between.

At this year’s Australian Open it was a different narrative for Kerber. The pre-tournament favourites were Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka (winner at the Brisbane event prior to the AO). That Kerber defeated Azarenka and Williams on the way to clinching the title is a truly powerful statement. Prior to the Open Kerber did not have a win over Azarenka; she had beaten Williams once back in 2012.

Kerber always had spectacular defense; her lefty forehand was lethal, and she could play an aggressive game. It was a tad surprising to see her not bring that style to the table often before, especially in the big matches. She got all her ammunition against Serena in the finals; her forehand was formidable and helped her keep the ball deep, her backhand consistent and reliable as ever, and her defense impenetrable. At Melbourne, Kerber saved a match point in her first round match against Misaki Doi.

The final not just showcased great tennis (my match of the tournament), it also showed Serena in great light. Williams was sportspersonship personified after her loss; gracious and sweet. For a fleeting moment I felt she was relieved to lose here. Now perhaps she can focus on each of the remaining slams individually and not head to Paris worrying about the Calendar Slam or Golden Slam. As for Kerber, she has the perfect game for clay.

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Random Pre-French Open 2014 Thoughts

Random Pre-French Open Thoughts (in no particular order):

  1. Will this be the year Halep will win a slam? She says clay is her favourite surface. If fit , she could go deep in the tournament.
  2. Maria could do well too, if Serena is not in her path. Plus, her serve should not desert her, as it sometimes does during key matches.
  3. Is Victoria coming to Paris? Her injury seems to be quite serious.
  4. So Aga Radwanska went to Melbourne as one of the contenders and then was blown away by Dominika. Does Aga’s lack of actual weapons hurt her at Slams? After all, there is only so much of counter-punching one can do and expect grand success at slams. Aga is sometimes compared to Hingis. Perhaps, she is not as crafty as the Swiss Miss.
  5. How fit is Serena? Judging from her first match at Rome against Petkovic, she looked good. She was playing with ease an moving very well. A third title at Paris would be welcome.
  6. So is Rafa’s aura on clay finally diminishing? He started strongly against Almagro at Barcelona and then lost the plot; eked out a win against Kei in the Madrid Masters final, where the latter was playing lights-out Djokovic-style tennis and for the most part seemed to be the better player on the day.
  7. Wrist injuries are tough to heal from; it is a slow and painful (ask Potro). So how fit is Novak? Does playing Rome give him enough match practice for the French Open? He can definitely play himself into form at Paris, but needs a benevolent draw at the French capital.
  8. Can Wawrinka do what Roger and Rafa could not? Courier could. Winning the Australian Open and French Open the same year was a great feat the American achieved in 1991 and 1992. This does not exactly have the glitter of a Channel Slam (French Open+Wimbledon) but doing so would assure Wawrinka’s place in history books.
  9. Roger travels to Paris with very less match practice and dark circles under his eyes. The defeat to Chardy did not perturb him much. Roger, in the past, has missed warm-up tournaments and managed to win grand-slam titles. Plus, he is a fine clay-courter. So cannot rule out the happy new dad.
  10. Who are the dark horses? Dimitrov, Gulbis and Nishikori among men and Stosur and Ivanovic in the ladies draw?

The Year So Far

Till now 2008 delivered whatever it had promised at the beginning of the year. There has been no shortage of drama right from Roger’s mononucleosis, Henin’s retirement, the Serbian Slam winners, Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon and Roger resurgence. Just in case the tennis fans were not be to satisfied, there were the Olympic Games, where tennis justified its place and where the Big Three of tennis each won medals.

Highlights of the year so far (in no particular order):

Henin’s Retirement:

No one saw this coming. The 7-time slam Champion called it quits days after her loss to Dinara Safina at the German open. What shocked everyone even more was the timing of the announcement- a couple of weeks before the French Open. Henin said that she had given her everything to the game and now she needs to step away and focus on life outside tennis. The Champion said that she had absolutely no regrets in her mind when she choose to announce her retirement- including not winning Wimbledon-  (Henin lost in the final twice to Venus Williams (01) and Amelie Mauresmo (06). Post Henin’s retirement, the WTA tour had no clear number one. Also, tennis was deprived of its most beautiful shot (as McEnroe put it) – the Henin single-handed backhand.


Nadal’s Ascend to the top slot:

At the beginning of the year, things did not look too great for Nadal. Novak Djokovic was closing the gap between them and the young Serb went on to win the Australian Open. Nadal managed to reach the semi finals at the year’s first slam, an improvement over his quarterfinal appearance in 2007. While post Australian Open he did have some consistent results he did not win a title till he moved to his preferred clay courts. He quickly accumulated titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Hamburg and clinched his fourth French Open title with an ultra dominant performance. He won the slam without dropping a set. The closest he came to losing a set was to Novak Djokovic in the semifinal, where the world no.3 had a set point in the 3rd set against Nadal.

Post French Open, the action shifted to London where Nadal won his first grass-court title, the Artois Championships and carried the momentum to Wimbledon where he beat the five-time defending champion Roger Federer in a five-set classic. The final which was in stark contrast to the one played at Roland Garros between the two few weeks back, was hailed as the greatest tennis match ever played.

Post Wimbledon, Nadal won the Rogers Cup and played solid tennis to win the singles gold at the Beijing Olympics beating Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets in the final. Post his Beijing conquest, he also registered his best performance at the US Open by reaching the semi finals.

The Roger Slump (!) and Resurgence:

How does reaching a semi final and two other slam finals equate to a slump? In general terms it may not, but when it comes to gauging Roger Federer it does. For the past four and a half years he has dominated the sport like no other player on the men’s tour had done before, thus setting almost unattainable standards. During that time, every other player on the tour was subjected to that standard and they invariably fell short. Only this year Roger found himself being constantly compared to the Roger of the past years and he found himself falling short. The main reason for his losses can be summed up in one word- mononucleosis, a glandular fever that he was diagnosed with a fortnight after the Australian Open, but one which was affecting his system right from the beginning of the year. In retrospect, it was surprising that Federer could even manage to play, let alone walk onto the court. He lost in the Australian Open semis to the eventual winner Novak Djokovic and then failed to win a title till the clay-court season began. During that lean phase he had loses to Andy Murray in his opening match at Dubai, Mardy Fish at Indian Wells and Andy Roddick at Miami. Federer still was suffering from the effects of the illness and the lack of match practice did not help. He went on to win his first title of 2008 at the Estoril Open on clay, beating Nikolai Davydenko in the final. After not winning any other title on the surface, Roger moved to his favourite surface- grass. He won the pre-Wimbledon warm-up at Halle without dropping a set or his serve.

After the loss at Wimbledon to Nadal in the final, Federer continued to struggle with early losses to Frenchman Gilles Simon and Ivo Karkovic at the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati Masters respectively. Perhaps the biggest post-Wimbledon disappointment came in the form of the quarterfinal loss to American James Blake in the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics. Federer however recovered quicker than he was expected to and won the Olympic doubles gold medal with his counterpart Stanislas Wawrinka. This medal proved to be sufficient motivation for the Swiss Champion as he defended his US Open title successfully. Doing so, he became the first player to win two slams successively for five years. The victory at New York meant that Roger was just a slam short of equalling Pete Sampras’ record of 14 slams.

The Serbian Rise Continues:

Serbia got its first singles grand slam champion in the form of Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open. The young Serb cemented his status as one of the three best players in the world with this win and led to the coinage of the phrase Big Three of Tennis. What Novak might not have achieved till date, his countrywoman Ana Ivanovic managed to do: reach the number one position. She did so by winning the French Open by beating Russian Dinara Safina in the final. While Novak and Ana have had slam success this year, Jelena Jankovic proved to be the most consistent of them. Jelenaa, a strong contender for the year-end number one ranking,  reached the final of the US Open and has the most number of wins on the women’s tour this year

The Ways of the Williams sisters:

Not playing day-in day-out and playing only when they really felt and ready seems to be the secret of the Williams sisters’ success at the slams. While Venus clinched the Wimbledon title (beating Serena in the final) without dropping a set, Serena did the same at the US Open and took over the number one ranking for the first time since 2003. The sisters also tasted success in doubles winning the title at Wimbledon and also the Olympic gold medal.

Del Potro and Safina- the New Stars:

While 2008 definitely belongs to Rafael Nadal, one cannot deny that the 19 year old Juan Martin Del Potro is the latest star of men’s tennis. The young Argentinean won four titles in a row and had a 23 match winning streak, before losing to Any Murray in the US Open quarterfinals.

Dinara Safina has a 43-5 win-loss record since winning the German Open in May, which helped her reach the no.3 ranking and a chance to take the top slot by the year end. The powerful Russian had her best results this year and has established herself as a serious slam contender for 2009.

Andy Murray fulfils his promise:

Andy Murray won the Cincinnati Masters for his first Masters Series title and in less than a month reached the US Open final. The young Scotsman has had an excellent year, in which he won some really tough matches, the most, memorable one was perhaps his fourth round win over Frenchman Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon, where he came back from two sets down to win a five-set thriller. Murray, who always was a brilliant tactician, has shown tremendous improvement in fitness this year, for which he credits his fitness coach. The US Open final appearance helped Murray reach his highest ranking of 4.

All in all, the year had been nothing short of splendid with stories and mini-stories galore. While the schedule left the players, especially tired, the fans aren’t complaining.