As Angelique Kerber was stumbling to defeat against big-hitting Russian Ekaterina Makarova, it seemed like the German was fulfilling every tennis pundit’s prophecy of her early exit. She was World No 1, the top seed at the French Open, but that meant little going into the Grand Slam on the back of the dodgy form she had shown on clay, and indeed this season. So when Kerber’s challenge duly fizzled out — 2-6, 2-6 in an hour and 22 minutes — there wasn’t even a ripple of surprise.
It was the first time in the Open era that a women’s top seed had been ousted in the first round.
Kerber was the ceremonial head of this anarchic women’s tennis field. She had taken up the top slot after a pregnant Serena Williams vacated it.
And it is the younger Williams sister who has unmistakably scripted the narrative of this era of women’s tennis. Such has been her looming presence, that despite sparks of rebellion, all other challengers to the throne have come up well short. Like most before her, Kerber, a seasoned counter-puncher, is finding it difficult to be the front-runner.
Since the start of 2007, only two women, apart from Williams, have won a Grand Slam while ranked No 1 in the world — Justine Henin (2007 French Open and US Open) and Victoria Azarenka (2013 Australian Open) — even though nine others have held the top spot. In the same period, only one player, apart from Williams, has won two Grand Slam titles on the trot — Kim Clijsters (2010 US Open, 2011 Australian Open) — even though there have been a total of 15 other winners. Once they emerge from the pack, and become the hunted ones, they have found it incredibly difficult to live with it.
In an interview, ahead of last year’s Wimbledon, Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou told me: “It shows how difficult it is to confirm a good result. (Sam) Stosur, (Petra) Kvitova, Kerber won a Grand Slam but struggled a lot in the following months. What is important to understand, is how the pressure processes, how it enters in the players mind and blocks their aptitudes. Once a player wins a Slam, she becomes the one to beat, and she suddenly feels she has to perform, she is not allowed to lose. First of all, players usually need time to figure out how to fight against that pressure, how to deal with it, and most of the time they won’t find a way. This will dramatically affect their results.”
It’s a level of pressure Williams has staved off all her career, almost super-humanly. Even as the American has hit a pause button on her Grand Slam acquisitions at 23, the most her closest rivals Venus Williams and Henin have managed is seven Majors each. Maria Sharapova, considered her bitterest competition, is still at five. While Roger Federer’s emergence inspired men’s tennis to dizzy heights, Williams’ success seems to have stunted and overawed the women’s field.
Kerber, who won her first Grand Slam at the 2016 Australian Open by brickwalling Williams in the final, has been as consistent as any in the ‘younger’ field. She made three Slam finals last year, and added the US Open title to her Slam tally to become the No 1 player in the world. The German seemed to have the persistence and patience to run Williams out of options.
But 2017 has been a humbling year. Kerber has not won a single title this season and has a win-loss record of 19-13. In the three tournaments leading up to the French Open, discounting the two first round byes, the 29-year-old has won two matches and lost three, including the second round of Rome Masters to qualifier Anett Kontaveit of Estonia 6-4, 6-0. She was also plagued with a thigh injury, forcing her to retire from the third round clash with Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid.
Even though the 29-year-old was seeded first, not many were ready to put their money on her. Most tennis experts predicted that Kerber would struggle, if not go down tamely as she did, against fellow-lefty Makarova’s power.
Possessing a pretty unflattering record at the French Open, where the best she has managed is a quarter-final finish in 2012, Kerber’s discomfort on the surface was evident on Sunday. Whether hampered by the thigh injury or not, Kerber’s movement was sluggish. Her foot-speed is key to her relentless, retrieving game, and with that gone, Makarova was able to fire bullets in her defence.
The Russian slammed 27 winners to 19 unforced errors, while Kerber made 25 unforced errors and hit 16 winners. Though Kerber was able to wrest back two breaks in the second set, she failed to hold her own serve to ease Makarova’s path to victory. The German neither played, nor did she look like the No 1 player and a two-time Grand Slam champion. It was the second year in a row that she had fallen in the opening round in Paris.
There is no order or sense in this Serena-less world of women’s tennis. And it hasn’t been more evident than at the start of this French Open. Even as players themselves agreed that there were 10 or more women capable of winning the clay-court Slam, it took three hours into the tournament to plunge them into further chaos.
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Updated Date: May 29, 2017 17:06:44 IST