Australian Open 2017: Andy Murray, Angelique Kerber and the challenge of consistency at the top

The winds of change are sweeping tennis, leaving us to marvel at the carnage in its wake. The unexpected departures of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber have left the Australian Open draw in shreds. The rest of the field will be scenting opportunity, even as the departed warriors will be delving into the genesis of their defeat. Their plight underlines the plight of living under a constant flashlight and the perils that come with it.

 Australian Open 2017: Andy Murray, Angelique Kerber and the challenge of consistency at the top

Top seeds Angelique Kerber and Andy Murray were both knocked out on Sunday. Reuters

After being spoilt by the monstrous consistency of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, it appears that the world of tennis is ready for a hard landing.

Incidentally, this is the first time since the French Open in 2004 that the top two men’s seeds have been knocked out in the first week of a Grand Slam. Back then, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer were sent packing in the second and third rounds respectively.

The life of a sportsperson at the top of the heap is an insightful existence, that needs careful nurture. Not everyone is equipped with the attitude and disposition needed to deal with being hunted by packs of hungry athletes. As much as each of them relish the hunt, being the constant target is an acquired taste that few, if any, manage to develop.

Federer, and to an extent Djokovic, seemed to relish playing under the glare and still produce the goods time and again. The plight of Angelique Kerber and Andy Murray is perhaps an experience that is closer to the normal. The two have a few things in common – it took them an enormous amount of time to realise their dream and both have learned to live in the shade of greatness.

The German turned her career upside down with a spectacular season in 2016. At the age of 28, she turned around an ordinary career with an incredible thrust to the very top. Kerber entered unfamiliar territory when she won the Australian Open last year, and did a great job consolidating her rise by taking Olympic silver and the US Open.

Ending the year as the top ranked woman was perhaps the culmination of a lengthy journey of rejuvenation for the German. The start of 2017 was unfamiliar territory for Kerber, who was not in search of affirmation any more. If anything, she was defending territory and that must have been an intimidating experience.

Kerber has looked tentative right from the start of the new season. She entered the Australian Open with just one win in three matches under her belt. She struggled through her first two matches, needing three sets against both Lesia Tsurenko and Carina Witthoft. Even though she appeared to find her groove against Kristyna Pliskova in the third round, CoCo Vandeweghe proved to be a mightier opponent.

“Of course, it was a little bit difficult at the beginning to get used to everything,” admitted Kerber, about being the top seed at a Grand Slam for the first time. “But when the tournament started, I was doing all the things like I did last year, was trying to do everything simple. Actually, I was feeling good. I have a good team around me, the same team like last year.”

Kerber has lived in an era that has been dominated by a relentless Serena Williams. By the end of this week, she might be sitting at home watching the familiar American snatch the number one ranking back. While we might empathise with Kerber, the German herself might feel relieved to concede the top spot to Serena.

The situation with Murray isn’t vastly different, even though he is in a different class altogether as a tennis player. Bitter defeat and painstaking effort have defined Murray for far too long. The grimace on his face drawn from the pain of enduring Federer, Nadal and Djokovic is all too familiar for tennis fans.

The great Scot though chose to define his career by the virtue of perseverance. The story of Murray is one of patience and persistence. In his refusal to treat defeat as a terminal disease, he retained relevance long enough to eventually ascend the throne.

While he won the Olympic gold and Wimbledon earlier in his career, the second half of 2016 proved to be his greatest period of tennis. Even as Djokovic was dealing with the debilitating effect of feeling content, Murray snatched the opportunity with both hands to play some of the best tennis of his career.

The run included a flood of success at Wimbledon, Olympics, Shanghai, Paris and the World Tour Finals. Murray was also voted the BBC’s Sportsperson of The Year and the Queen added a knighthood to his collection. It was as if everything fell in place for Murray after an interminable wait.

The sense of relief that accompanies such success is all too well documented. In many ways, it is an experience that Murray shares with Djokovic.

“I was full of confidence coming into the beginning of this year,” said Murray, trying to explain if the effort to the top has taken a toll. “I prepared as best as I could but maybe have to have a look back and assess some things and see maybe if there’s some stuff I could have done differently.”

Contrast the experiences of Murray and Kerber with the unabashed celebration witnessed from Federer after his five set victory over Kei Nishikori. It is picture that can help you draw out the contours of the kind of genetic material needed to not just turn champion, but remain one for a long time.

Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 13:16:54 IST