Angelique Kerber, being German, probably has no interest in Major League Baseball. Yet, that lack of interest doesn’t mean her story at Indian Wells in 2019 cannot be connected to America’s national pastime, which originated in the middle of the 19th century.
I might have come across the expression a few years earlier, but the first time I consciously remember reading the words “less is more” was in the book written by American political commentator George Will on the world of professional baseball.
The year was 1990. I was 14 years old. In “Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball,” Will explained the various nuances of baseball in a combination of personal analysis and extensive interviews with players, coaches, and talent evaluators in Major League Baseball. “Less is more” came from an understanding that sometimes a comparative lack of force can provide better results in the sport.
For example, a bunt — an attempt to lightly tap a pitch thrown by the pitcher — can produce benefits much greater than smacking a ball 350 feet. A bunt can enable a baseball hitter to safely reach first base and score. A bunt can move a runner from one base to the next — first to second, second to third, or third base to home plate for a run. A 350-foot fly ball which is easily caught by the defense leads to an out and no productivity by the offense.
Less is more also comes into play in baseball when considering how hitters swing the bat and how pitchers pitch.
A hitter can swing mightily and miss the ball, which achieves nothing, or he can swing in a more measured and calibrated way and make contact, hitting a soft, looping floater for a base hit and scoring runs for his team.
A pitcher can throw as hard as he possibly can on every pitch, giving a hitter nothing but 99-mile-per-hour fastballs. Those pitches might be hard, but if they are down the middle of the plate, they can still be hit very easily. The pitcher does not necessarily help his cause by throwing hard on every pitch.
What if a pitcher leads the hitter to THINK that a fastball is coming, only to throw an 81-mile-per-hour change-up? The hitter expects the fastball, but the slow pitch totally crosses him up and causes him to miss.
Less is more.
In the Indian Wells final, we saw how less can be more for Bianca Andreescu. Kerber loves pace, but Andreescu didn’t consistently give it to her. Andreescu did throw some fastballs, but she mixed in those slow change-ups to keep Kerber off guard. This was a lesson for everyone else on tour in how to play Kerber. Yet, even then, Kerber stayed in the fight after losing the first set and made Andreescu fully earn her victory. Kerber showed multiple times at this tournament that she won’t easily fade in the heat of combat. It is why she has blossomed late in her career and won three major titles.
The “less is more” mantra — as I articulated it above — also entered into Kerber’s fourth-round match against Aryna Sabalenka. That match was a case study in a fastball pitcher (Sabalenka) blowing hot and cold, being hurt by her erratic play and not being able to rein in her immense power. Kerber didn’t always play particularly well, but she is an exemplar of this central tennis truth: You don’t have to win points with winners. Allowing the opponent to implode is just as valid and accessible a path to victory as hitting through the court.
Wins don’t count less if you win a match by enabling the opponent to lose. WTA points aren’t deducted for winning matches in a certain manner. They count just the same.
Kerber won Wimbledon last year with Wim Fissette. She has a new coach this season, Rainer Schuettler. Coaching carousel changes represent a huge 2019 story on the WTA Tour. Would various players going through coaching changes be able to sustain high quality if they established it last year? Would other players who struggled in 2018 be able to reach new plateaus this season?
Kerber, at Indian Wells, showed that with Schuettler, she is on the right track.., and that in various ways, less is more in tennis, not just baseball.