Winning with Tangible and Intangible Weapons
As the BNP Paribas Open reaches the quarterfinals, the secondary stories recede to the background as the big boys and girls emerge onto center stage. Still, before turning attention to the biggest names, let’s take a look at one of the less recognized members of the WTA top 10: Angelique Kerber.
As recreational players, from beginner to advanced, you can probably learn more from the women pros than you can from the men (at least that's the way it is for me). Whether you are a 3.0 or a 5.0, very few players can realistically hope to produce serves in the 120 to 140 mph range. Most of us are 5’2” to 6’2” tall and not 6’4” to 6’7” as is becoming more and more common in the men’s ranks. Regardless, most players can learn a great deal from a player like Angelique Kerber.
Kerber usually does well at Indian Wells. Last year she made it all the way to the semifinals where she ran into Azarenka. This year Angelique had a relatively easy 2nd round match defeating Irina-Carmelia Begu 6-3, 6-2, which led to an interesting 3rd round match with Yanina Wickmayer, the big serving Belgian.
On Monday, Angelique dispatched #32 Yanina Wickmayer 6-1, 7-6 to make it to the round of 16, in a match that beautifully illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of her game.
Kerber is often described as a gritty counterpuncher, a determined baseliner, or as a player who runs down every ball. However, there is more to her game than that. Her consistency and precision is augmented by an ability to take the ball on the rise and redirect it, and she has an instinct for transitioning from defense to offense and for exploiting positional advantages.
On the other side, Kerber’s serve is not going to frighten anyone (even at the club level), it's probably the weakest part of her game. First serves consistently register in the 80’s and her second serves are often in the mid to high 60’s. It is worth noting that like Rafa, Angelique is right-handed (She eats and throws right-handed) but plays left-handed.
She manages to hold serve reasonably well by locating it in the box and by backing it up with solid groundstrokes. Because she throws right-handed, I am guessing her serve will never be the strength of her game; and she is going to need to do a great deal of work to get the synchronization that all great servers possess.
On this day, Kerber got off to a great start making 13 of 15 first serves and winning 11 of those points. Meanwhile Wickmayer struggled and put up little resistance, going down 6-1.
While everybody, including Kerber, is well advised to focus on how to hit the serve to make this stroke as effective as possible — just as important as pace is overall placement. Against Wickmayer, Kerber focused her serve consistently into the body or to the backhand. Only occasionally would she work back to the forehand side just to keep her opponent off balance. This serve pattern was one of the foundations of Kerber’s game plan against Yanina, but more on this later.
The second set tells a different story. Kerber began to miss first serves and quickly fell behind 4-1. She was in fact, broken in each of her first three service games of the set (not at all uncommon on the WTA tour). At this changeover, Angelique called out her coach. In the post-match interview, she told us that her coach told her to remember her game plan and keep playing the match point by point. Hardly earth shaking advice; but it is important, as tennis is a sport in which one can easily become distracted and let points slip away. Anyway it worked. She held two out of three of her remaining service games while breaking Wickmayer three straight times to set up a tiebreak in the deciding second set.
This is definitely one of those intangibles I am talking about — Kerber fights until the very last point. I really became a fan of Angelique last March, when she pulled off a truly epic turnaround here on Court 7 against Sloane Stephens. Trailing 6-2, 5-1 with Stephens serving at 40-15, Kerber launched an amazing comeback that ended with Angelique winning 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. I’m guessing every tennis player could learn something about match toughness from this Polish born German star.
In addition to her physical skills, Kerber is also an excellent tactician. In this match, she sensed a slight advantage along the ad court diagonal. She would sometimes simply sustain the rally with her forehand to her opponent’s backhand until she induced an error from Wickmayer. But at the same time, Angelique always seemed to be looking for opportunities to take the ball on the rise and redirect it down the line either for an outright winner or to put her opponent on the run and in a world of trouble.
Often, this pattern arose immediately following her serve; and she was most effective when she could get the serve into Wickmayer’s body, or swing it wide to the backhand side and push Wickmayer off the court.
In other instances, this change of direction would come in the midst of a crosscourt rally. Wickmayer too felt this pressure and repeatedly tried to shift the rallies along the deuce court diagonal. However, Kerber’s backhand was rock solid and held up on those relatively rare occasions when Yanina succeeded in implementing this strategy.
But Kerber is not just limited to retrieving balls on the baseline. She looks for opportunities to attack second serves, and she aggressively pounces on any short ball in the mid-court. Unlike pure counterpunchers, she does attempt to get up to and inside the baseline when her opponent is in trouble and likely to respond with a weak, shorter ball or high floater. She also hits a lower, flatter ball over the net; and, therefore, can produce winners and forced errors when she gets those opportunities.
Yet another lesson to be learned from Kerber is that we all need to step back and re-evaluate our games from time to time. When you simply play, improvement is a slow process. It is critical to know your own game; then systematically work to shore up the weaknesses and hone your weapons.
Mired in a slump during the summer of 2011 Angelique Kerber was forced to re-examine her approach to the game. Her fitness (or lack of) was holding her back. She took off almost two months to improve her conditioning and work intensely on her game. Clearly, most of us could use a complementary fitness program to not only improve our performance level; but also to help avoid use injuries, which too often put us on the sidelines.
Coming back to the court after this intense training regimen at the Schuettler Waske Academy in Germany, Kerber made an incredible run all the way to the semifinals of the US Open. At the time, many felt this result was a fluke. However, her game has continued to flourish; and her ranking has climbed from outside the top 100 to a very lofty number 6 in the world.
The determined Angelique exemplifies much of what we find admirable in tennis. Kerber's success is a testament to the value of hard work and mental focus. She clearly shows us that we need a strong body and an equally acute mind to excel at the sport. Finally, while it isn't necessarily easy, if we put some of Kerber's valuable lessons to work for us, we should be able to play better tennis for longer.
On Tuesday evening, Kerber defeated qualifier Garbine Muguruza to move into the Quarterfinals against Aussie Samantha Stosur. This will undoubtedly be a tough test for the German as Stosur’s signature kick serve is a serious weapon on the slower, high bouncing hard courts of Indian Wells.