Curb (verb) — to check or control; to hold back by force; to impede a progress, activity or impetus of some kind
This is what Angelique Kerber did to Serena Jameka Williams on Saturday afternoon at Centre Court Wimbledon.
The famously big serve, the legendarily large hitting, the pronounced plenitude of power from Serena’s racquet — which entered the final having thrashed six overwhelmed opponents — were blunted and defused by a foremost counterpuncher who used exceptionally good tactics. Many will note Serena’s abundance of unforced errors, and they won’t be entirely wrong to point out that obvious fact, but Serena had not previously met a player at this Wimbledon tournament who would ask as many questions… and very good ones, to be more precise.
Yes, Serena misfired far too often. Yes, Serena did not play well enough to win… but as I hasten to remind anyone who reads tennis articles, this sport is a dialogue. The opponent always has a say. Whether that opponent chooses to speak is another matter. Kerber spoke very loudly inside the most famous court in tennis. She began the match by breaking Serena and letting her know how hard it would be for the 23-time major champion and seven-time Wimbledon champion to hit through her. That initial declaration remained intact throughout Saturday’s contest, a decisive win over the player many regard — with great and ample reason — as the best women’s tennis player of the Open Era.
Saying Serena lost this match more than Kerber won it ignores Kerber’s five unforced errors, a total lower than Serena’s seven UFEs in her semifinal demolition of another German, Julia Goerges. Saying Serena lost this match more than Kerber won it ignores the reality that Serena wasn’t always going to play untouchable tennis. Winning the seven matches needed to lift a major-tournament trophy generally involves fending off different kinds of opponents. Kerber was precisely the kind of opponent who had the resources to create a different — and bigger — challenge for Serena, the icon and mother who overcame a literal near-death experience (not metaphorical — the real thing!) to make this final, two months before her 37th birthday.
Saying Serena lost this match more than Kerber won it fails to appreciate how Kerber’s tactics were so consistently well chosen. Kerber, as noted by Tennis With An Accent staff writer Jane Voigt [@downthetee], found a winning play by drawing Serena to the net, where her forward movement wasn’t nearly as crisp as her lateral movement.
Kerber’s use of drop shots and short slices to bring Serena to the net was and is interesting in this sense: I’m not sure if Kerber felt she would win every point in which she used a drop shot. She might have, but she also might have used those droppers because she didn’t want Serena to settle into a comfortable rhythm from the baseline. Georges in the semifinals, Camila Giorgi in the quarterfinals, and most of Serena’s other opponents (Kiki Mladenovic being the exception to the rule in a close third-round match) didn’t offer that change of pace which pried Serena away from her comfortable baseline position. Kerber might have used those drop shots to win points, but she was also using those droppers with the larger battle in mind: Even if she lost an occasional point with a dropper, she still sent a message to Serena that her near-37-year-old opponent would have to run a lot and account for the whole court’s grassy expanse of real estate. Serena’s awareness that she would have to come to the net played a part in the continuously errant shots and imprecise reactions to balls at net, a natural byproduct not only of Kerber’s variety and tactics, but of Serena’s relative lack of match play this year, something noted by TWAA staff writer Briana Foust in her coverage of Serena during this fortnight.
That is such an important lesson for tennis players: Tactics should certainly try to win points, but they should also plant seeds and set the stage for future games, future sets, future situations. Knowing your opponent might have to run more; or deal with uncomfortable net points; or move vertically within the court, not just horizontally, can carry a long-term benefit beyond a single point. Individual points might be lost in the present moment, but a drop shot and the act of luring an opponent into the net can pay dividends later. Kerber’s tactics certainly won a lot of points in the present moment, but they also flowed into the whole of the match. Serena couldn’t dominate with her serve, and as soon as Kerber did her signature curbing — holding back Serena from finishing points with her power — the match belonged to the woman who now has three major titles, more than Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova. Kerber is also now a woman who has won majors at three different tournaments, the French Open being the only exception.
The story of the 2018 women’s tournament at Wimbledon deserves more words and reflections. You will get some additional words on Serena from Briana Foust. You will get more words from me after the weekend concludes. What is said next is not meant to be a full or final summation of what has happened over the past two weeks. It is merely an attempt to put Kerber’s championship into perspective:
It is often the case that after a player wins a SECOND major title, the knowledge of how to win big in tennis never goes away. One championship can easily be viewed as a one-off moment — life-changing, but not yet something which is replicated. When tennis players win that second major, they often develop the muscle memory and confidence which enables them to achieve even more before they retire from the sport. If you think I’m making this stuff up, here’s a basic fact: In the Open Era, only FOUR active WTA players have won only two majors: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Garbine Muguruza, and then Azarenka and Kvitova. (Four others have won only two: Mary Pierce, Amelie Mauresmo, Li Na, and Tracy Austin, with Austin being a two-major winner only because injuries sabotaged her career.)
Kerber, then, represents a unique journey: Once she won her second major at the 2016 U.S. Open, it seemed logical to think that her career would continue on an upward trajectory, but then she got devoured by a brutal 2017 season in which she lost confidence, feel and inspiration. For her to go through that humbling and sometimes miserable experience, absorb the pain it involved, and then bounce back with this sensational 2018, crowned on Saturday against an all-time-great champion, represents one of the foremost displays of resilience you will ever see from an elite professional athlete. To rise as high as Kerber did in 2016, then fall to the depths she fell in 2017, and then rise to the very top of her profession once again in 2018 is not normal. It is as unlikely and remarkable as, for example, a mother almost aged 37 making a Wimbledon final with nearly zero match play in 2018.
Kerber and Serena are both doing remarkable things in 2018… and on Saturday, Angie WAS the curber who expertly showed how to exploit the parts of Serena’s game which will require more time to polish in her comeback.
Kerber now joins her idol, Steffi Graf, as a Wimbledon champion. Wimbledon is known as a place where the greatest of great tennis players make their name at some point in a career. Serena is the very definition of greatness at the highest level. Kerber, by curbing Serena’s march toward an eighth Wimbledon crown and claiming one for herself, has forged an achievement which will dramatically improve how well she is remembered in the annals of tennis history.
Her performance on Saturday, and her track record of unmistakable excellence in every major final she has played, make Kerber worthy of that lofty level of praise.