In 2012, arguably her breakout season, Angelique Kerber played 21 tournaments and two Fed Cup ties; out of her 85 singles matches, she played 23 three-setters, which equates to 27%. She’s made a name for herself over the past 18 months by grinding out wins, even when not playing near her best.
However, Kerber’s been dealing with overstressed disks in her back since a fourth round loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Melbourne, which forced her to withdraw from Germany’s Fed Cup tie with France this past weekend. On Tuesday in Doha, she dropped her opener to countrywoman Mona Barthel, 6-1, 6-2. For the majority of the match, Barthel was hitting an average of 20 km/h bigger off the ground than her countrywoman, who missed many short balls in the net; Kerber looked a step slower, and this is crucial for a classic counterpuncher who relies on her movement. This is especially true for Kerber as an individual, for whom clutch shots on the run and lethal down the lines are a trademark.
Of course, health and fitness play a part in this result. Kerber probably should take more time off, but I bet she won’t; she did not defend her Premier level title in Paris last week (which was coincidentally won by Barthel), has a title in Copenhagen to defend, a semifinal in Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Roland Garros and a semifinal at Wimbledon on her ranking. When you play, and win, as much as Kerber did in 2012, it’s difficult to be out for any extended period of time. I do give her credit though for staying out there and playing until the end, on a day when Yanina Wickmayer, Varvara Lepchenko and Maria Kirilenko all retired in their Doha openers with injuries.
Kerber’s ‘I’d rather be anywhere else but here’ attitude when the going gets tough is, for some, part of her charm; unlike many others, she tends to channel that negative energy, turn it into positive and use it to help her play better. However, for the most part, we have yet to see that fire this season; when things have gone wrong in matches she’s lost, she seemed resigned and almost defeatist. In addition, Kerber’s game, much like her countrywoman Andrea Petkovic’s, is not fluid and free-swinging. This might cause both to be more prone to injuries than others.
While it’s still too early to tell how Kerber will perform for the rest of 2013 if or when she gets healthy, we’ve heard the story of players who overplay in order to rise up the rankings, and it coming back to hurt them later, before. And all too often.