There isn’t a lot of absorption going on at the All England Club this fortnight. There was a light patch of rain on one evening in week one, but the weather in suburban London has been mostly dry and hot. The lawns of Wimbledon are hard, baked and parched, not soft or lush. The balls are bouncing higher into big hitters’ strike zones, which explains why John Isner has finally made the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and why baseliners such as Kiki Bertens and Julia Goerges and Camila Giorgi have also done well.
If absorption is happening on the courts of Wimbledon, it is occurring in the mind. On Manic Monday, Angelique Kerber and Belinda Bencic both took in lessons like a sponge in an absorbing pair of close sets. In the end, Bencic had reason to absorb a lot of confidence and tuck it away for the rest of 2018. Kerber reaffirmed how much she has absorbed in this year’s tennis season. She withstood a forceful challenge from her opponent and showed once again that the demons of 2017 are long behind her.
Last year was a time to appreciate how and why the elites — Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal — have maintained their grip on power in the tennis universe. Those four players got to No. 1 and stayed there. They reached the pinnacle of the sport and didn’t stop winning unless injury and/or childbirth (in Serena’s case) got in the way. Being No. 1 — or being at the top tier of a sport, any sport — confers its own considerable form (and level) of pressure. It is a first-world problem, to be sure, but not everyone is cut out to handle it. That’s not an insult or a diminishment of the achievement of ever being No. 1 — it is a huge achievement even if it lasts no longer than a few weeks. That comment is meant to illustrate that players respond differently to the status and pressure and visibility created by being No. 1, by being everyone’s target on the tour. The great ones separate themselves from the very, very good ones in this way, a centerpiece of their success.
In 2017, we don’t need to elaborate on this story, but we do need to offer the simple reminder that Angelique Kerber often had a miserable time playing tennis, and Andy Murray had a hard time staying healthy. Both players, albeit in different ways, felt the strain of remaining No. 1 after attaining that lofty and treasured goal late in the 2016 season. Kerber and Murray learned firsthand what it means — and how it feels — to stand on top of the mountain and get everyone’s best shot.
Kerber took one decisive loss after another, her body performing the actions of a tennis player, but her soul lacking the fire and inspiration of the previous year. Kerber resembled in 2017 what Grigor Dimitrov is on a depressingly relentless basis: Someone who looks the part of a tennis player and who sincerely tries hard — and who runs and hustles and can do so many things on court, and who is by all reasonable accounts a good sport — but who lacks that “extra something” in important moments. That “extra something,” of course, is the combination of belief and focus which carry great champions through tough situations with conspicuous consistency. Kerber had it in 2016 and just as surely lost it last year.
Everyone in tennis wondered if Kerber would get it back.
After this win over Bencic — which notched Kerber’s third major quarterfinal of 2018 in as many tries — it’s impossible to refute the notion that Kerber has her groove back.
No, Kerber isn’t winning majors this year — not yet; that could change this week at SW19 — but she lost to Simona Halep in her previous two major tournaments, one in an epic Australian Open semifinal. Kerber lost to an elite player, not haunted by the kinds of losses which dogged her throughout 2017. Against Bencic — a player whose run to the fourth round was one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the first week of this fortnight — Kerber arrived at many moments in which her 2017 self would have faltered.
Her reborn 2018 incarnation held firm.
Kerber trailed 3-1 in the first set but, undaunted, stormed back to win the next five games. In the second set, Kerber was the one who lost a 3-1 lead, with Bencic reminding the tennis world how well she can play when healthy. Yet, after falling behind 4-3 and then 5-4, Kerber broke Bencic when the Swiss was serving for the second set. The resilience which didn’t show up last year emerged in all the right moments for the German this year… and on Monday.
This was a typical match — typical in the sense that the player who trusted herself was able to pull through against a very good opponent who did not have enough match play under her belt to have the same amount of trust in pressure situations. If Bencic and Kerber reunite in Cincinnati or at the U.S. Open, a similarly close match might break the other way. Bencic might gain the sense of steadiness which injuries have denied her to this point in 2018.
Bencic looked like a player who absorbed what it takes to win, as she develops her comeback and leaves London with ample reason to be confident about her future.
Kerber looked like a player who absorbed the lessons of 2017… and knew she would prevail. That’s where Bencic wants to be. It’s where Kerber is right now, two wins from a return to the Wimbledon final.