Saturday, September 5th: Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber in was easily one of the the highest quality matches of US Open — men’s or women’s.
From start to finish, these two former Top 5 players — who have had a mixed bag of 2015 seasons — slugged it out from all positions on the court. The pair amazed spectators with winner after winner and, perhaps even more surprisingly, delivering on the hype that had started brewing the moment the women’s singles draw had come out.
Since her rise into the elite ranks, Kerber has consistently featured in some of the WTA’s most memorable matches and points — and this year has been no different. In fact, it appears as if ever increasingly we’re seeing Kerber duke it out with her signature lefty, counterpunching game to create non-stop “match of the year” candidates.
The German’s 2012 revelation seemingly came out of nowhere. At the end of the previous year, she had made an exceptional run to the US Open semifinals, fighting her way through a seed-forsaken section of the draw before falling in a (naturally) high quality affair with eventual champion Sam Stosur. She had a few more solid results to finish off the year, going from just barely inside the Top 100 to being seeded at the first major of 2012.
Alongside Sara Errani, Kerber emerged from obscurity to finish 2012 as a member of the world’s Top 5. That year she defeated nearly every top player — Li Na, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, and even Serena Williams — and took part in numerous high quality matches, such as her Wimbledon quarterfinal against Sabine Lisicki and her round-robin match with Azarenka at the WTA Tour Championships.
So what makes her game so, so good and even more so, so watchable?
Her genius lies in her uniqueness: Kerber’s game style cannot be replicated.
She’s both a defensive baseliner and an aggressive counterpuncher at the same time; she’s capable of lightning bolt winners and steely defensive passing shots. She can change the outcome of rallies that appear firmly in her opponent’s favour with a single shot and her capacity to be effectively proactive and proactively reactive within the same point is unparalleled.
Unlike the Radwanskas, Wozniackis, and Erranis of the world, Kerber possesses a definitive “finishing shot.” Whereas you’d only see those former three players hit high numbers of winners against fellow counterpunchers, “Angie” Kerber –- as she showed on that Saturday –- is capable of turning the tide of a rally much more effectively against the game’s bigger hitters with her exceptional down-the-line forehand.
The Bremen-native has an uncanny ability to flatten out her eccentrically-abbreviated forehand and thread her shots so close to the lines over the highest part of the net. The beauty of this shot is while it’s perfectly capable of redirecting pace, it’s also able to generate it with the same efficiency — unlike the game’s other counterpunchers.
Her left-handed tennis (she’s a natural right hander, by the way) is another contributing factor to how well she matches up against so many players on WTA Tour. When you take a look at the world’s Top 30 players, the large majority have better backhands than they do forehands. High percentage cross-court backhands, then, go to Kerber’s preferred lefty forehand wing, resulting in matches of strength vs. strength rather than ones built on exploiting weaknesses.
As a result of her counterpunching versatility, the World No.11’s game effectively translates not only from opponent to opponent, but from surface to surface. In 2015, Kerber has won Premier titles on green clay, indoor red clay, grass and outdoor hard courts. The low bounce and high speed of grass courts adds juice to her weak serves and allows for more attacking tennis, while the higher bounce and low speed of clay courts provide her with extra time to defend and to launch forehand counterattacks. Yet while clay courts haven’t been the kindest to counterpunchers over the years, hard courts, naturally, provide a solid middle ground.
While many announced her incredible third round US Open effort versus Azarenka to be the match of the year, a similar tune has been sung several times in 2015 after matches featuring the German.
1.Kerber d. Gavrilova 6-7(6), 7-6(2), 6-3 (Sydney, 2R)
This was the first Kerber classic of 2015, complete with (literal) screaming forehand winners from obscene court positions. Somewhat appropriately, it might’ve also been the greatest match of 2015 that no one saw; the match finished just after 3 AM local time in the unforgiving Australian heat. Gavrilova is a feisty, emotional player, and manage to invoke what fans have come to know as “Duncurrber,” an alter ego of Kerber who appears to check out of matches despite hitting ridiculous, nonchalant winners. This match was dramatic, and the scoreline suits it; the two are slated to play each other again in the first round of Tokyo — will we get another classic?
2. Kerber d. Keys 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 (Charleston, F)
Kerber’s 2015 has had its highs and lows, but the lowest point was between January and April where the lefty could hardly scrape together wins at any event. Her re-genesis happened in Charleston, where she scraped past a tricky first round match against Evgeniya Rodina — that she easily could have lost — to make the final, playing a hard fought match against the huge-hitting Madison Keys. The match itself was as you’d expect –- Kerber tracking down balls and hitting sharp angles to move her opponent around. She did just enough to get the win.
3. Kerber d. Sharapova 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 (Stuttgart, 2R)
#shesback. #orsomething. This definitive match in Kerber’s 2015 form resurgence was her first Top 10 win since beating Sharapova herself just under a year earlier at Wimbledon. The transition from outdoor green clay to indoor red clay is more difficult than one may imagine, but from 4-4 in the second set, peak Kerber settled in and played some magnificent shots to give the three-time defending champ her first loss in Stuttgart.
4. Kerber d. Wozniacki 3-6, 6-1, 7-5 (Stuttgart, F)
The icing on the cake of a brilliant week.
Not only is Stuttgart the only tournament in Germany on the WTA Tour, but its title sponsor, Porsche, is coincidentally Kerber’s biggest non-clothing sponsor as well. Wozniacki served for the match, but Kerber upped her aggression and managed to reel off four games in a row to win arguably the most meaningful title in her career.
5. Kerber d. Pliskova 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(4) (Birmingham, F)
With grass always being one of Kerber’s strongest surfaces, her run to the final in Birmingham was much less surprising than Pliskova’s, whose height makes it difficult to hit the low bouncing shots on the fresh lawns of Birmingham. However, the Czech’s massive serve and flat groundstrokes caused all the problems for Kerber, who is ostensibly the WTA’s best mover on grass courts — but her defensive play was just enough to edge her opponent in a third-set tiebreak for the title.
6. Muguruza d. Kerber 7-6(12), 1-6, 6-2 (Wimbledon, 3R)
Not all of the incredible matches Kerber has been a part of in 2015 have been wins for her. This crushing loss — her second in a row to Muguruza after bowing out to her in the same round of the French Open — featured easily one of the most dramatic and high quality sets of the year – as well as the rally of the year. Muruguza went on to make the final at SW19, dispatching pretty much all the game’s top counterpunchers along the way.
7. Kerber d. Radwanska 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 (Stanford, QF)
This match is still perhaps my top candidate for match of the year. At points, there seemed like an infinite supply of highlight reel content –- every single rally resulted in a creative or exciting winner. Radwanska played some of her best 2015 tennis in this match and forced Kerber to go all out on attack; both players covered every inch of the court in this incredible advert for women’s tennis.
8. Halep d. Kerber 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 (Toronto, 3R)
While Kerber came into Toronto having played a ton of tennis during her title run in Stanford the week prior, Simona Halep had played very little of it over the past few months with early exits at both summer majors. Halep’s freshness made the difference in the end of this , but Kerber’s resolve was never diminished by her tiredness – rallies in this match were immense and the quality far higher than their meeting in Doha a year prior.
9. Azarenka d. Kerber 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 (US Open)
If you haven’t seen this match, please find it somewhere. This epic was an appropriate use of the word –- epic rallies, epic intensity, and epic success in delivering on the pre-match hype. Both players really needed this win to salvage disappointing results at the majors this year, and Azarenka’s grit and incredible shots at the net were the difference in the final set……but not before Kerber saved five match points with absurd forehand winners.
While she lacks a few dimensions in her game –- serving and hitting volleys are not her strong suit, and are arguably weaknesses that have prevented her from winning the biggest titles and defeating the biggest names -– Kerber’s counterpunching game has proven time and time again to be both the canvas and the paintbrush with which many masterpieces of matches have been painted in 2015.
And the season isn’t even over yet.
What are some of your favorite Kerber matches? Sound off in the comments!