“I need a little bit of time to forget this loss,” said Angelique Kerber, still putting up a brave front for world media. Her Grand Slam season had come to a premature, disappointing end on Monday as she was ousted 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 by Kristina Mladenovic in the first round of the US Open.
Disappointing, but none too surprising. It’s been that kind of year and that kind of career for the German. After toiling on the pro circuit for close to a decade, she scaled dizzy heights in 2016, making the finals of three of the four Grand Slams and book-ending her year with title wins at the Australian Open and the US Open. A year later, ‘Angie’ looked lost, her ultra-solid game on the verge of a breakdown. She suffered opening round defeats at the French Open and the US Open.
When she won the Wimbledon title last season, beating Serena Williams in the finals in straight sets, it looked like the 31-year-old had found her second wind. But the German is once again finding it difficult to meet the expectations.
Kerber’s best performance at a Grand Slam, since her 2018 Wimbledon triumph, has been a fourth-round appearance at the 2019 Australian Open. She keeled during the European swing this season, losing in the opening round to teenager Anastasia Potapova at the French Open and then going down in three sets to Lauren Davis in the second round at Wimbledon. Almost eight months into the year, Kerber is yet to win a title this year and had a mediocre 25-14 win-loss record going into the US Open. Having started the year ranked No 2 in the world, Kerber has dropped out of top 10 and is currently placed at 14.
The German also arrived in New York without a coach, having split with Rainer Schuettler after the grasscourt Grand Slam, and without much match time. In her two hard-court events before the year’s last major, in Cincinnati and the Canadian Masters, Kerber suffered first-round defeats.
It is an ominous task to turn a tide like this. And Kerber didn’t quite get the luck of the draw, getting a tricky opponent like Mladenovic right in the opening round of the US Open. While the lanky Frenchwoman is known more for her exploits on the doubles court, where she is a three-time women’s doubles Grand Slam champions and ranked No 2 in the world, Mladenovic is far from an also-ran in the singles field. She had peaked at No 10 in the WTA singles rankings in 2017. But more importantly, she has the varied game and an astute mind that’s sharpened on the doubles court.
Mladenovic unsettled Kerber with her court craft on Monday, but more importantly, didn’t sway from her game. Pitted against one of the best defenders in the women’s game, the 26-year-old from France trusted her big shots, especially that cracking forehand, to do most of the damage.
“The first rounds are always not so easy, especially since I played not so well in the last few weeks,” said Kerber after the match. “It was not my best match but she played a good tactic against me.”
There have been times when aggressive opponents have blown Kerber off the court. But Mladenovic didn’t power as much as she relentlessly picked at Kerber’s game. The Frenchwoman, though, always kept the match on her racquet, compensating for the 43 unforced errors with 46 winners and winning 23 of 30 net points. Even though the 2016 champions fought hard, staying in the baseline battles, and winning a few with her incredible backhand down the line, she seemed to have neither the confidence nor the artillery to quash the world No 54.
In the final tally, Kerber won 12 more points than her opponents — 105 to Mladenovic’s 93. But that was mainly because the Frenchwoman suffered from back spasms in the second set and took two medical time-outs before conceding it 6-0. In the two sets when she was healthy and able to compete equally, Mladenovic saved 10 of 12 breakpoints and converted four of 11 break chances of her own. Like she had the first set, the Frenchwoman closed out the third set with a forehand winner.
“I played good in the second set and (it) was (an) up-and-down match,” conceded Kerber, who hit three unforced errors off the backhand in the ninth game to hand Mladenovic the break and a crucial 5-4 lead in the decider.
“Every Grand Slam is a new tournament. It’s disappointing, especially after all the years. This is tennis. Every year is different. Yeah, this year it was not really the best year for Grand Slams for me. I have to deal with the situation this year and try to do better next time.”
Updated Date: Aug 27, 2019 17:12:34 IST