This is a guest post by sportswriter and broadcaster David Fearnhead, who believed in the Grand Slam champion potential of Angelique Kerber from the moment he saw her match in Birmingham way back in 2007.
For a few years now a friend has asked me which outsiders he should bet on at the Grand Slams. I’d give him a few names depending on form and surface. There was no secret to them, they were the same names I’d shared whenever I was guest on BBC Radio. Only he noticed something. One name would nearly always crop up. He knew I had friends on tour, and he knew that I didn’t know the player personally, so he assumed it was either I saw something in her that others hadn’t – or that I fancied her. So he began to preference his question with, “Apart from Kerber, who else do you think can win a Grand Slam?”
Angelique Kerber first came to my attention in 2007 when she lost to Marion Bartoli in the third round at Birmingham. I’m not sure exactly what it was about her game that made me take note. She had no obvious weapons other than being a leftie, but I thought she could be a dangerous player on grass. So for the next few years I kept an eye on her. 2010 looked like it was going to be her breakthrough year, she’d reached the third round of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and I was tipping her to do well in New York. She exited in the first round.
2011 started better, reaching the quarters in Hobart. Again I tipped her to do well in the Slams. She didn’t get past the first round in any of the first three Grand Slams of the year. I was beginning to think I’d cursed her. Then in the US Open something clicked. She may have been ranked barely inside the Top 100 players, but she went on a fantastic run knocking out both Agnieszka Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta before she came up against Samantha Stosur in title winning form.
Now she wasn’t just my wildcard tip anymore. She was a serious player in the eyes of a growing number of commentators and fans. In 2012 she reached the quarters in the French and the semis at Wimbledon. That 2012 run established her, but it also brought greater expectations. If she could beat the likes of Clijsters and Lisicki surely it was only a matter of time before she was a finalist.
The following year she again exited early, a second round defeat to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi. It was a tight match, both players had their chances, but in the end it was Kanepi who had the composure to close it out.
What followed next was disgraceful, and deeply upsetting.
Kerber was subjected to the worst sort of abuse and even death threats on her Facebook page. At the time I was guesting on BBC Radio and spoke of my disgust that anyone would attack a player especially in such a personal way. Let alone do it to Angelique Kerber, who’d fought hard and seemed to be one of the nicest players on tour. I didn’t know her, I couldn’t reach out to her to express my thoughts. I just made sure I said publicly that it was just a tennis match, and as much as I loved tennis, no result and no player deserved to be targeted as she was.
The next year, 2014, she came back to Wimbledon and made the quarterfinals.
2015 wasn’t a great year for the Grand Slams, but she did land four titles on tour and showed she could produce consistency. And that really is the key to her game. She’s not got a power serve, and yes her second serve isn’t much of a threat, but she does have that great leftie ability to open up the court.
This year I bet on her to win Sydney, after she’d made the final in Brisbane. I had a good feeling about her, but when she withdrew from the second round in Sydney, I was worried that once again she’d be disappointed in a Grand Slam. My fears were almost confirmed when she was match-point down to Misaki Doi in the first round of the Australian Open.
Somehow, someway, she came back. Having been almost out, she seemed to play with the freedom of someone who had nothing to lose. She cruised past Dulgheru, Brengle and Beck. Then came Victoria Azarenka who had just beaten her in the final of Brisbane. Kerber started sharp, 6-3 in the first. Surely Azarenka would come back. She did, but Kerber stepped up again, held her nerve and took it 7-5. Now I really fancied her for the title. She was a little nervy against Johanna Konta in the semis, but once she’d settled into her game it was clear her first Grand Slam final was coming.
All the talk before the final was about Serena chasing Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles. They pointed out that Steffi was Angelique’s idol, but nobody was giving her a chance. The most positive prediction I heard for her was Marion Bartoli’s prediction that she’d win a set, but she still was certain Serena would take out the title. Every time I heard a commentator say that nobody was backing Angelique I smiled. I wanted to ring them up and say, “Look, can’t you see Kerber is going to win this!”
This wasn’t just a word, I’d put my money where my mouth is and bet on a Kerber victory. I genuinely believed this was her moment. Her time. She said it herself that she had nothing to lose, and if she could just play aggressively but without putting pressure on herself then she would be champion. It may have taken nine years, but I’d always thought this moment would come. Why else would I constantly have been talking her up on the radio. It certainly wasn’t making me look good at the time, but I always believed in her and her game.
Some say Serena choked, I don’t buy that. Serena didn’t either. She was beaten by the better player on the day, and she also showed what a class act she is by how she behaved during the trophy presentation. A true champion is not just about winning the trophies, it’s about how you behave during defeat and for me there were two champions on court on Sunday.
The only question now is how many more can Kerber win? (photos: Jimmie48)