It is said that good things take time to make. It took Angelique Kerber more than a decade to transform herself from a second rung player to a Grand Slam champion. Having reached the summit at 28, she is wasting no time making a habit of winning majors. The German’s triumphant run at the US Open, in a tense three-set match against Karolina Pliskova augurs well for women’s tennis, just when it stands at a crossroads.
The WTA Tour has been the fiefdom of Serena Williams, who continues to amaze despite being nearly 35. The American legend has been holding the sport together with her stunning dominance. But the sport needs healthy rivalries and a bucketful of stars to help it thrive and progress.
Women’s tennis has been searching for the next big thing, after enjoying over three decades of outstanding brilliance from legends such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Venus Williams, Serena, Martina Hingis and the Belgian duo of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.
In the past few years, Serena has turned her focus to the Grand Slams, leaving the grind of the tour to lesser mortals. Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki took advantage of the situation, riding a steady stream of results to usurp the top ranking on the WTA. Unfortunately though neither woman could substantiate their reign with meaning.
The two women went deep but never managed to win a Grand Slam title, underlining the true void that was gripping women’s tennis. Serena is the queen that dictates terms, but advancing age and the gravity of greatness are beginning to take a toll on the great player.
In this context, Kerber’s unexpected success this season has come as a refreshing boost for the WTA. Only a year ago, Kerber was dealing with a spate of losses, including a first round exit at the 2015 Australian Open. Kerber parted ways with Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh and reunited with Torben Beltz, vexed with her own listlessness.
The eureka moment came in the lead up to Indian Wells last year, when she spent time practicing and speaking with her compatriot Steffi Graf. After years of playing like a defensive wall, Kerber transformed herself by embracing aggression and unshackling her mind. The change was an inspired move that catapulted Kerber from an also- ran into the biggest challenger to Serena’s hegemony at the top.
While the transition from a solid player to a great champion has been impressive, what has struck the tennis world most is Kerber’s hunger and effort to sustain her high level week after week. Women’s tennis has sorely missed the kind of consistency that Kerber brought to the table this season. She defeated Serena in Melbourne, lost the final to her in London, won the silver at the Rio Olympics and picked up her second major in New York.
Since Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, there have been five other women who have won a Grand Slam title without repeating the feat. Of course, there is every possibility that Garbine Muguruza, winner in Paris this year will win again, but the larger trend is the fact that a generation of women have come and gone without leaving too much of an imprint on the sport.
Kerber’s success could help create a new wave. Her fellow professionals can identify with her success and script a revival of their own flagging fortunes. The younger lot could be emboldened to believe that they could usurp the baton through commitment and courage.
Despite three barren years, all is not lost for a player like Victoria Azarenka, a two time winner in Melbourne. Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska are the nearly girls of tennis that could claim success by taking care of the small margins that separate the women at the top. Muguruza will certainly want to prove that she isn’t a one trick pony.
Karolina Pliskova showed enormous belief in New York and the Czech will be a woman to watch out for next season. She was up 3-1 in the final set and needed more belief to pull it through at the end. But Pliskova stood tall for much of that US Open final, her first in a major, to produce just the fourth full length contest in 22 years.
Madison Keys is making rapid progress and many believe that the 21-year-old American could step up very soon as she settles into her fully formed physical frame. There are a host of other younger players like Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh who promise to brighten the future for women’s tennis.
The WTA needs a strong pack of five or six women who can consistently battle for honours. The renaissance of Kerber and the like and an emergence of young stars could just be the potion needed to fuel the women’s tour into a new orbit as the sun sets on the Williams era.