German tennis produced some notably good players before the mid-1980s. Sylvia Hanika made the 1981 Roland Garros final. Helga Niessen reached the 1970 Roland Garros final. They weren’t giants in the sport, but made a mark — enough that they deserve to be noticed and appreciated.
Yet, if one is to discuss the zenith of German tennis, one can’t look anywhere else but Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. For aspiring WTA and ATP players in Germany, those are the two gold standards, the two main sources of inspiration for everything which has followed in the past third of a century.
The foremost icons of German tennis both won majors in Australia and New York — Steffi in particular, with 22 major singles titles — but Becker (1985) and Graf (1988) made their first great imprint on the tennis world at Wimbledon. Becker’s out-of-nowhere title as a 17-year-old and Graf’s ability to dethrone the Queen of Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova, were highly resonant events at the time. The stories of those separate conquests at the world’s most famous tennis tournament rippled across the planet.
The effects of those two Wimbledon championships are still being felt today… and in 2018, no one embodied the fruitful nature of those effects than Angelique Kerber.
She already won two major titles. She had already succeeded in getting the most out of her game and producing a career resume worthy of her talents. She had done what Stan Wawrinka and other tennis players in their very late 20s or very early 30s have been able to achieve in recent years: Become the late-bloomer who learned essential tennis lessons before it was too late.
But there was still a piece of unfinished business to tend to for Kerber: Win Wimbledon. Do what Steffi had done.
The bonus for Kerber: If she had the chance, avenge the 2016 Wimbledon final loss to Serena Williams.
Kerber received that rare second chance history doesn’t often extend.
She made the most of it with a clinical dissection of Serena’s court coverage and net reactions, which were unpolished in the relatively recent stages following her return from maternity leave.
Kerber earned the ability to stand in Steffi’s shoes, hold the Venus Rosewater Dish, achieve a piece of tennis immortality, and — beyond Wimbledon itself — gain a third major title, lifting her past contemporaries such as Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova and past-era greats such as Tracy Austin.
These achievements — these facts and figures — are all impressive in isolation, but what makes Kerber’s Wimbledon title and 2018 season even more luminous is the fact that in 2017, Kerber lost the mind-body dualism which marked her 2016 ascendance. With a target on her back and pressure inside her brain as the WTA’s hunted player of 2017, Kerber didn’t handle the heat very well. Tennis became a struggle and a slog, not the fun pursuit of challenges and dreams during a sensational 2016 in which Kerber played nearly every significant final, including the Rio Olympics.
Kerber needed to completely reset the dial in 2018. She was no longer the hunted, but she still had to make her way through a deep — and increasingly deeper — WTA Tour which wound up producing three first-time major champions this season.
Guess who was the only WTA player who won a major title in 2018 after having won a major in any previous year? Yes — Kerber.
She handled Serena at Wimbledon. She also defeated major champion Jelena Ostapenko en route to that title at SW19. She defeated Daria Kasatkina — the Indian Wells runner-up — on the path to Wimbledon history and immortality. Kerber even took care of future major champion Naomi Osaka in her seven-match path to glory at the All-England Club.
If the fall from 2016’s dizzying height to 2017’s rock-bottom position was dramatic for Kerber, the rise back to the top of her sport in 2018 was just as pronounced.
Keep in mind that while Wimbledon was the undisputed crown jewel of Kerber’s year, she played in what was arguably the match of the season against Simona Halep in the 2018 Australian Open semifinals. She made quarterfinal appearances at other important tournaments, including Roland Garros. Kerber clearly had one of the three best seasons on the WTA Tour in 2018. She didn’t merely enjoy two great weeks at Wimbledon.
Angelique Kerber’s best season remains her 2016 masterpiece. Yet, after a 2018 restoration of her excellence and the successful pursuit of a long-coveted Wimbledon championship, this might be the season Kerber appreciates even more when she reflects on her shimmering career.