“Pressure is a privilege; it only comes to those who earn it.”
The women of the Czech Republic and Germany had their own kind of pressure to deal with this weekend, as they took center stage at the O2 Arena in Prague to determine which nation would come away with the Fed Cup trophy. Representing one’s country on the world stage is also a privilege unlike any other.
Angelique Kerber, Germany’s No. 1, doesn’t exactly exude stereotypical leadership qualities. Then again, she hasn’t needed to. Her extroverted compatriots Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki do a lot of the talking and headline-grabbing. She doesn’t possess Petkovic’s quick wit off the court, nor does she possess Lisicki’s booming weapons on it. A hard worker with the innate ability to read the game, Kerber’s best asset is perhaps her ability to dig her heels in and battle – when she wants to.
Despite all of that – or even in spite of it – Kerber, who recently completed her 129th consecutive week inside the world’s top 10, took center stage this weekend. The field general of sorts, she was expected to lead her underdog team into enemy territory. The Germans had the odds stacked against them; the Czech squad was led by Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, each of whom hadn’t lost a home Fed Cup rubber since 2010. In addition, the Czech team hadn’t lost a home tie since 2009, and tasted defeat just twice in their backyard in the last 10 years.
Kerber had demons of her own to face. On four occasions this year, the World No. 10 was a finalist in a WTA tournament, seemingly unable to produce her best tennis when it mattered the most. She was a heavy favorite against debutantes Tsvetana Pironkova in Sydney and Madison Keys in Eastbourne, and held a hefty lead on Serena Williams in the first set in Stanford. Throw in a routine loss against Simona Halep in Doha, and the German hadn’t claimed victory in a championship match in over a year.
With the Germans already down 1-0 courtesy of Kvitova’s emphatic victory over Petkovic on Saturday, Kerber came to bat against Wimbledon semifinalist Safarova, against whom she had never lost. The lightning-quick indoor court in Prague masked Kerber’s weaknesses on serve, and her counterpunching game was on point en route to a 4-2 lead in the opening set.
Suddenly the pressure began to take hold; it was a sign of things to come. She lost the next four games as her serve percentage dropped, and her groundstrokes misfired.
On set point, even her brain cramped.
Not yet deflated, the German built another 4-2 lead in the second set, only for Safarova to recover in identical fashion to close out Kerber. With her and her country backed against the wall on Sunday – and with murmurs swirling whether or not German captain Barbara Rittner would sub in Lisicki – Kerber took the court against Kvitova in a battle of team leaders.
They led by example, and they delivered.
For the third consecutive set, Kerber built a lead before it evaporated in an instant. A 5-2 lead turned into a 5-5 tie, with Kerber serving for the set once more at 6-5. That lead also disappeared, and the German again found herself down a set she should’ve won when Kvitova closed out the tiebreak.
This time, however, it was finally time for Kerber to turn the tables. Kvitova raced out to a 3-0, double break lead in the second, when Kerber came to life; after looking soundly defeated, the German claimed six of the next seven games to force a decider. With Kvitova fading and seemingly struggling physically, Kerber built a 4-1 lead in the final set and it seemed as though the woman who spent much of the weekend reeling had finally steadied.
They were both their team’s No. 1s, but one critical difference decided the match between the two left-handers: in the moments where Kerber wilted, Kvitova thrived.
The Wimbledon champion ran off the last five games and rallied to win a 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-4 thriller in two hours and 57 minutes to clinch her country’s third Fed Cup in four years. While she and her teammates celebrated, Kerber and her compatriots were left to rue what could’ve been. With everything stacked against them, a team that was never really given a chance came awfully close.
It would be easy to say that Kerber gave all she had, but it wasn’t enough. However, losing both matches from winning positions might’ve meant something more than that. Undone by the unique pressure of having her country’s eyes upon her, the player whose achievements have often been cast aside might’ve wanted Fed Cup glory more than anyone. Her on-court attitude and aloofness in the face of adversity have often been her Achilles’ heel, but on this day, “Duncurrber” might’ve cared too much.