When Angelique Kerber and Daria Kasatkina faced each other in Eastbourne a mere two weeks ago, it turned out to be a match for all ages, with Angie coming out on top by a score of 6-1, 6-7, 7-6. I don’t put too much weight into the concept that recent head-to-head matches matter in a non-major tournament followed by a major one. In this case, however, it was hard to ignore, considering their proximity in time.
This one turned out to be a straight-set victory for Kerber, but it was just as thrilling. In fact, at the end, it made me wish it had been a best-of-five match. I wanted to see more. But let’s put wishes aside and get to the nitty-gritty of Kerber’s 6-3, 7-5 win that lasted one hour and 29 minutes.
In my post-match breakdown of Kasatkina’s fourth-round victory over Alison Van Uytvanck, published on Monday on Tennis With An Accent, I closed the article by reminding readers that that the Russian’s next opponent, Kerber, was the second-most seasoned player left in the women’s field. Compared to Kasatkina, who has reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the first time (the second in majors after this year’s Roland Garros), the German appeared as a giant going into Tuesday’s match in terms of experience at the elite level. She appeared in three finals in three different majors (including Wimbledon in 2016), two of which she won.
That experience brought some intangibles to the table that you cannot necessarily see in the menu. They played a significant role in the outcome of the match.
Kerber’s groundies were tuned in from the start. What that means for the German is that she was moving well, keeping the ball deep, counterpunching as only she can, and furthermore, using her trademark accelerations to catch Kasatkina off guard, leaning on her back foot. Kasatkina started well too. In retrospect, the first game was one of the best games of the match in terms of quality. It was almost a warning for people to quickly grab their snacks and drinks and get settled for the rest of the duel.
The only substantial chance Kasatkina had to get on board in the first three games was the break-point opportunity she had in the first game, the one she squandered with a makeable backhand return missed long on Angie’s second serve. It did not help that Kasatkina began the next game with a double fault and ended it with another one. Double faults did present a problem to Kasatkina throughout the match, but they were not the main reason why she lost.
Kerber was very sharp from the baseline. She made only two unforced errors in the first set! She made none when Kasatkina began charging back after going down 0-3. How do you come back from 0-3 down against an opponent who gives you nothing? You don’t, although Kasatkina did appear to pull off the impossible at one point in the set. This is where, if you have the replay of the match, you may want to find the 3-1 game in the first set and follow along with me. If you do not have access, it is okay — you will relive it as I describe its details. Make no mistake, though: It describes a paramount element of the intangibles that propelled the German to victory.
After holding at 0-3 and getting on board, Kasatkina began the 1-3 game on Kerber’s serve with a vengeance, nailing a forehand winner to Angie’s deuce corner. Then came one of the intangibles that I noted above. You will not see in the stats a category called “Points won by Kerber on a variety of 1-2-punch patterns.” And yet, Kerber’s ability to produce a variety of 1-2-punch patterns to win the point, on top of her use of the classic style of 1-2 punch winners (big serve, followed by a short return, and the point ending with the next big strike by the server for a winner, often on the forehand), came in handy at several turning points in the match.
On that 0-15 point, right when it looked like Kasatkina was building momentum to climb back into the match in the early going, Kerber produced her own brand of 1-2 punch. This is the one in which she hits the serve first made world-famous by Martina Navratilova: the “can opener,” the wide serve to the ad side that keeps curving to the outside, thus forcing the opponent to leave the court, then follows it up with her trademark forehand down-the-line acceleration to put her opponent on the stretch. This is not your classic nail-the-winner-on-the-second-shot type of 1-2 punch. Angie’s forehand is measured here, accelerated but not banged. If it turns into a winner, fine. If it does not, the opponent is in deep trouble anyway. Kasatkina, in this case, had to run all the way to the other side of the baseline and still missed it in the net. Now at 15-15, stay with me for a bit more to wrap this game up.
At 15-15, Kerber gets another first serve in that Kasatkina blocks back on her forehand. Angie accelerates again, inside-out, back to the deuce corner, catching her opponent — who was recovering to the middle from the return — on her back foot. Kasatkina scrambles and gets it back with a defensive forehand and attempts to recover back to the middle again, at which point there comes another forehand acceleration to the deuce corner. Here is Kasatkina once again having to change direction and scramble. She gets it back sharper crosscourt, but Angie does it again, with her backhand this time. Once again, Kasatkina changes direction and stretches for the fourth time to hit a forehand, and misses. It’s a rally defined by another type of 1-2 punch that Kerber uses more efficiently than most other women on the WTA Tour.
Once again, she did not go for the “bang” winner on the second shot. Instead, she accelerated enough to avoid the silly error that often accompanies attempts at spectacular shotmaking (partially the reason why she committed only two unforced errors in the first set), and yet enough to put the pattern of the rally in a way that rendered her opponent’s life miserable. A 1-2 punch began the point and its aftermath turned the rest of the point into a horror show for Kasatkina. Many will not qualify this as a 1-2 punch point, because it did not end after the second shot. The official tally recorded this point as “D. Kasatkina loses the point with a Forehand Forced Error.” For my part, I count it as part of the intangible category I mentioned above, “Points won by Kerber on a variety of 1-2-punch patterns.” But wait, there is more.
On to the 30-15 point, Kerber pulled off yet another one. She struck a first serve to the “T,” and Kasatkina had to once again reach and block the forehand return back into the court. Angie stepped around in the middle of the court and looked lined up for a forehand strike, which put Kasatkina in a defensive stance two meters behind the baseline. Then, Kerber, at the last second, changed her backswing and snuck in a forehand drop shot. Kasatkina had not expected it, so she took off at the last second and barely got her racket on it on the full run and stretch, missing it wide. It was another successful 1-2 punch by Angie, this time executed with an exquisite drop shot. This also went to the record book as “D. Kasatkina loses the point with a Backhand Forced Error,” but you know by now in which category I put it. Kerber led 40-15 after that point and held serve on the next one.
By the way, have you noticed how, right when she needed to buckle down at 0-15, 3-1, to stop a nascent Kasatkina comeback that started at 3-0, Kerber made only first serves? Add that also to the intangibles menu, because you will not find it in the stats, just as you will not find any mention of the category I noted above. Those three points simply show up as three forced errors by Kasatkina in the official records.
Kasatkina did still manage to break Kerber’s serve later at 4-2, which speaks volumes of her abilities, considering Kerber’s level throughout the first set. Serving at 3-4, she played her worst game of the match and the stats, this time, will show it. At 15-15, she made an unforced forehand error and followed it up with two double faults. You can chalk that game up to Kasatkina, but the overall narrative of the first set should reflect what really took place. Kerber played at an extremely high level — intelligently, consistently, and within her strengths. That also included plenty of rallies in which she engaged in patterns that favored her, such as crosscourts from her lefty forehand to Kasatkina’s backhand.**
**Two examples for illustration: the 30-40 point in the second set at 3-3, and again, the 30-40 point at 4-4. You may have noticed, they were both break points for Kerber and she won both. Being seasoned counts. Experience brings intangibles.
Kasatkina adjusted her style to counter the Kerber puzzle as the second set began. She took a more aggressive approach to the rallies and began pounding her forehand whenever she got the chance. She was not hitting them flat for all-out winners because that is not in her stroke production – not yet, at least. She did however produce 11 forehand winners in the second set alone, which I find remarkable against a retriever like Kerber, even though she was adding plenty of topspin into them.
The larger picture that this particular adjustment represents cannot be underlined enough. It reaffirms how tremendously talented Kasatkina is at the age of 21. She is so versatile that she managed to give herself a chance to mount a comeback against an in-form, seasoned player who was at the top of her game on Tuesday, by actually resorting to some mixture of what she would usually use as her Plan B.
Kerber felt so much pressure that she veered away from her disciplined approach and made some bad decisions in the waning moments of the match, out of sheer anxiety of crossing the finish line, before finally putting away her pesky opponent on her seventh match-point opportunity.
In the last game, Kerber became apprehensive about coming to the net, even though she had Kasatkina on the full run. There were several points in the last two games like that, a product of Kerber’s fear of Kasatkina’s crafty stroke production. By the time the 6-5 game arrived, Kerber was so anxious not to let the second set slip away that her nerves turned fragile. See the fifth and the sixth match points (two among several other instances) in which she has clear chances to come to the net to win the point, but does not, in the hopes that Kasatkina will miss – because that is what tennis players do when they start carrying brittle nerves on the court.
On the fifth match point, she had Kasatkina on the full run from one side of the court to the other after the serve and did not follow up her shot to the net. Kasatkina turned the balance of the rally in her favor and showed the courage to come in when she got a short ball and won it at the net. On the sixth match point, Kerber got two short balls back from Kasatkina, but you can see from her footwork that she never even considered putting the heat on her. She did hit a pretty good drop shot that Kasatkina got back to her side. Kerber lobbed her and Kasatkina turned around and began running back. What should you do when that happens? Approach the net. Kerber did not. Of course, I cannot know for certain what goes on in the head of players, but I bet that she was, at that moment, hoping that the lob would land in and the ball would never come back. It landed out by an inch or two.
Kerber finally closed the curtain on Kasatkina when she did find the courage to go back to her strength. Yes, another 1-2 punch point, à-la-Angie, with the second shot being her trademark forehand down-the-line acceleration. Kasatkina missed the defensive forehand in the net and Angie could celebrate a well-deserved victory, one she earned thanks to her experience and her timely use of the intangibles, not because she was necessarily the more talented player on the court.
She will take on Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals. There are two days to dissect what may happen in that match, but for now, let me finish with a reflection on the Russian player.
Can we safely assume, at this point, that Daria Kasatkina has arrived in the big leagues? I believe so. If you can reach the quarterfinals of Roland Garros – and a major – for the first time in your career, then turn around one month later and repeat the same feat on grass at Wimbledon, only losing to a seasoned champion like Angelique Kerber, who was forced to throw everything but the kitchen sink at you to get the job done, it is clear that big-league status should welcome you with open arms.
Furthermore, Kasatkina’s parcours to the quarters at Wimbledon should not be underestimated. She proved herself against a variety of competition in Jana Fett, Yulia Putintseva, Ashleigh Barty, Alison Van Uytvanck, and even in the loss to Kerber. This demonstrates that she engaged in arduous problem-solving and succeeded for the most part against players with a plethora of plan As based on either hitting the ball hard and flat, or attacking the net, or rallying steadily with few to no unforced errors, or serving big, or a mixture of any of the above.
Barring injury, the Kasatkina ticket should be in high demand by tennis fans in the years to come.