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KERBER, THE JOY OF FREEDOM, AND DIFFERENT WORLDS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The transition from Wimbledon to summer hardcourts — which involves a layoff of two to four weeks and necessitates a transition from one continent to another — invites chaos for professional tennis players. The busiest seven weeks of the year — given that they encompass four weeks of major-tournament play — begin in Paris at Roland Garros and end on the final weekend of Wimbledon. After those seven weeks, the top players in the sport generally need time away from action. They need a mental health break. They need to rest their bodies before the punishment presented by hardcourts. They need some time and space in which to process what has happened in their 2018 season and refocus on the next huge segment of the year.

If you look at a tennis season through the prism of three-tournament segments, the summer hardcourt stack — Canada, Cincinnati, U.S. Open — is as important as any three-tournament series all year. The only other three-tournament segment which exists on the same plane is the procession from Madrid to Rome to Roland Garros in late spring. The point is plain enough to grasp: Elite players typically need to refresh and recharge after Wimbledon and before Canada. This change of scenery and surface and psychology is very demanding. The prospect of an early loss in Canada after a post-Wimbledon mini-hiatus is always real for professional players.

Getting the body and mind to work together again — fluidly and with sufficient harmony and intensity — is an immense challenge. It is not extraordinary to achieve it, but it can never be taken for granted. This week in Montreal at the Coupe Rogers, WTA pros have felt the sting of this precarious transition.

One member of this group of players: Angelique Kerber. She just didn’t have her best stuff — or anything close to it — against Alize Cornet, a player noted for picking off the occasional upset against a high-ranked player who is going through an off day. Cornet feasts on those brief opportunities; yes, she then lets down her guard against a less credentialed opponent, but she loves the bright lights and the big stage, and she reveled in the moment against Kerber.

Some debates or discussions in tennis carry a lot of intrigue or complexity, if not both. However, any discussion about the meaning of Kerber’s loss involves neither. This is a no-debate situation: Kerber’s loss means nothing beyond the fact that she won’t play another match and therefore can’t gain more points. If any player on the WTA Tour was to lose early in Canada and pay no price for it at all, it’s Kerber. This is the woman who promptly revived herself after her 2017 stumbles. This is the woman who expertly outflanked Serena Jameka Williams on Centre Court in a Wimbledon final. This is the woman who has played four major finals at a very high level — not once did she disappoint in the cauldron of a major championship match. This is the woman who now has more major titles than Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova.

Kerber gets not just a free pass for Canada. If she does nothing else in the remainder of 2018, her season is still a huge success. This is the joy of freedom alluded to in the title of this piece. Kerber bought herself immunity to fierce criticism for a very long time. Compared to her peers, she has very little left to prove. This loss in Montreal carries no profound value whatsoever.

When the discussion shifts to other players, intrigue re-enters the building.

Want to identify a particularly discouraging early-stage WTA loss in Montreal? Karolina Pliskova offers a good starting point. The fact that she lost, 6-2, 6-2, to anyone is cause for concern in its own right. The fact that Pliskova lost to Kiki Bertens — who defeated Kaja at Wimbledon — adds to the Czech’s woes. This was a bounce-back opportunity for Pliskova. Revenge is overrated in sports, but the idea of solving a problem is not. This was a chance for Pliskova, on hardcourts — her best surface — to reassert herself, and she actually lost by a larger margin to Bertens than at SW19.

That rates as a disappointing trip to Canada.

Kerber (freedom from criticism) and Pliskova (uh-oh!) represent the two extremes in this column. An example which resides somewhere in between those two polarities is offered by Alison Van Uytvanck. The Belgian lost to Ashleigh Barty in the second round on Wednesday in Montreal. The loss isn’t a bad one, because Barty is both talented and seeded. One could lose to a far less credentialed player than the Australian. Moreover, as I wrote at Tennis With An Accent earlier this week, draws at WTA tournaments are very tough. Naomi Osaka has lost a lot in recent weeks, but her opponents have been highly formidable. Viewed through that prism, Van Uytvanck’s defeat isn’t that big a deal.

On the other hand, AVU — having defeated Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon and having displayed a new level of potential in her game — encountered a “battleground” moment against Barty. When I use that term, I refer to an occasion in which two players were fighting for the same piece of territory, trying to establish a comfortable residence in the tier of players below the list of legitimate major title contenders on the WTA Tour. AVU and Barty aren’t championship-level players at the moment, but they both want to be able to join the club in the coming years, and they are both young enough that their ceilings are far from being fixed or certain. They both have room to grow. Van Uytvanck didn’t need to make the Montreal semifinals or quarterfinals to build on her Wimbledon showing, but it is fair to say she needed this match against Barty. Credit Ash for a quality win, but it remains that AVU did not get what she wanted from this transition to Canada.

It is always fascinating to see which players get stuck when they begin their transition from Wimbledon (and a brief vacation) to North America in early August, and which players (such as Kiki Bertens or the injured and hugely unlucky Mihaela Buzarnescu) manage to sustain momentum through the summer. Angelique Kerber got stuck but has no reason to care at all about her exit from Montreal. Karolina Pliskova, on the other side of the fence, should be very worried. Alison Van Uytvanck stands between them, with reasons to downplay a Montreal loss as well as reasons to feel she let an opportunity slip away.

These are the different worlds of the WTA Tour when tennis moves to hardcourts in the heart of summer.

Image – Jimmie 48

 

 

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