Matt Zemek

Tennis is rarely a theater of the perfect. More often than not, it is a theater in which being good enough is the player’s central rallying cry. One thing tennis never ceases to be: an arena in which handling a given day’s opponent is all that matters.

When human beings talk about tennis — and crank out lots of articles and podcasts during a tournament, as Tennis With An Accent is doing in Key Biscayne, Florida, during this fortnight — it’s not as though they can reinvent the wheel. They don’t need to. The terrain of a tennis match will often elicit different points of emphasis or realms in which one player finds a winning edge, but those variations are contained within a limited range of topics. 

Tennis players — like any athletes — are always in search of an extra level of performance or a tweak which can unlock the slight improvements that mean the difference between winning and losing, between being elite and merely above-average. Yet, tweaking is one thing. Overhauling is quite another. Early in a career, a player’s tactical acuity might be impoverished, but at some point, a tennis player has to decide what she is good at, commit to a certain way of playing, and develop those strengths while patiently working to shore up the weaknesses which lie underneath. 

This — it can safely be said — is what Angelique Kerber did in 2016. She relied on her defense and became very effective — better than ever before — at blunting the attacking games of big hitters. Yet, she also supplemented her game with an improved ability to redirect shots and thereby hit more winners from defensive positions. She also added a greater weight of shot to her groundstrokes in neutral-court rallies to collect the cheap points any top player needs to move through matches and whole tournaments in ways that kept her fuel tank full for a whole season. Kerber sustained her excellence beyond an occasional run in one or two events, such as what Elena Vesnina produced in Indian Wells or Caroline Garcia delivered in China last year. 

Tennis players arrive at the realization of what they are on the court, how they need to play, and how they prefer to win. This is called Plan A.

Yet, every tennis player — despite all the knowledge in the world about strengths and weaknesses and preferred routes to victory — also knows that while identity is important and following the game plan is crucial, another component to success at the highest levels of tennis is non-negotiable: survival skills. This means finding a way — any way — through a difficult day at the office, when the punch on the groundstrokes isn’t there, when the serve lacks bite and the opponent feels confident. When the player on the other side of the net is taking big cuts and one’s own game seems stuck in second gear, what then? How does a player manage to overcome personal struggles and a belief-filled opponent?

Kerber cracked the code in 2016. She just as quickly lost the code in 2017. Now, in 2018, she is trying to get it back.

Her coping skills were very much on display in a very long and taxing three-set win over Wang Yafan in the fourth round of the Miami Open on Monday. Kerber lost a first-set tiebreaker, failed to serve out the second set, lost a 3-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, and was two points from losing the match, but she overcame all of those stumbles to prevail, 6-3 in the third. She didn’t play her best, but she did compete her best, and that’s why she will get to play Sloane Stephens in a highly-anticipated quarterfinal. 

Tennis players — like tennis analysts — don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They often need to make sure that the car merely stays on the Autobahn, steering clear of trouble (for the player) or controversy (for the analyst). Angelique Kerber did this against Wang in Key Biscayne, and now she has a second quarterfinal in this Indian Wells-Miami swing, her sixth quarterfinal in 2018.


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