What next for Angelique Kerber after defeating Serena Williams for the 2016 Australian Open? She’s the toast of Germany and another high point for her country’s global sports success, and she’s the newly minted No. 2 player in the WTA.
It’s well deserved. Kerber knocked off two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka, whom many experts had tagged to win this title, and she vanquished the legendary Serena in one of the best major finals in recent years.
Tennis fans could only admire the searing line drives she hit with her lefty forehand and her scampering footwork to will herself to victory in a physical match. She closed with the mental strength of a veteran, but with the hunger of a bright-eyed, fearless prospect.
Kerber was tough, reliable and speedy, the efficiency for which German automobiles are known. Now the real test is for her to keep racing along the Grand Slam road of success.
Will she bid for more major titles? She has the talent and confidence right now, but time has a way of eroding greatness. It’s not going to be easy to match her Australian Open heroics.
Twice is Nice
The WTA has mostly been Serena’s domain in the 21st century after several dominant champions supplanted Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. These included Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova.
The competition mostly thinned out at the top by the time the second decade dawned. Serena enjoyed another resurgence of major titles (10 titles since 2010, which is a greater rate than the previous decade), but the rest of the WTA has mostly searched for that second champion with only cameo results.
After Clijsters finished with two more major titles in 2011, Sharapova, Azarenka, Li Na and Petra Kvitova have chipped in with two major titles each, but they’ve all been hampered by injuries or uneven results from year to year. (Svetlana Kuznetsova added her second major title in 2009, nearly five years after her first.)
There have also been the one-hit major winners who have been sprinkled into Serena’s era. Rewinding from 2008, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Samantha Stosur, Marion Bartoli and Flavia Pennetta all took their one title.
Unlike Bartoli and Pennetta, who were out the retirement door before their victory candles were blown out, the 28-year-old Kerber can look at the real possibility of joining the “Deuce Club.” She’s physically fit and has enough power and strength in her footwork to compete hard for at least the next few years. Her game can adapt well to clay and Wimbledon’s grass, where she was a surprise semifinalist in 2012.
Kerber’s been a consistent player, usually hovering around the fringes of the top 10. Maybe this breakthrough in Melbourne is all she needs to win big a little more often.
Competition Will Thicken
We’ve seen more players start their big career rise in their late 20s. Chinese star Li was a fine recent example before her abrupt retirement in 2014. Clijsters returned to tennis late in her career to win three of her four majors. Now Kerber and Lucie Safarova are the latest to enjoy a leap forward after toiling in relative obscurity for several years.
However, Kerber is just one of many stars who is competing for majors in the deep WTA. If Serena’s age slows her down, majors will be up for grabs with proven veteran stars and power players Sharapova, Azarenka and Kvitova. Then there are top-10 talents like Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep, who could very well get their long-anticipated major titles.
Add in a potentially great crop of young players like Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Madison Keys and Eugenie Bouchard, and the competition at the top could be a merry-go-round of major winners, all competing just as fiercely as Kerber.
Kerber is now a target for the other WTA stars. It’s one important difference, and it brings new kinds of pressures to win. Can she hold up?
A major title changes someone’s life forever. The casual tennis fan will be alerted to Kerber. Fame could change her for better or worse. In the short term, she will work harder and feel more inspiration in her workouts. Then she will look to take her new success and expectations to the courts. If adversity and losses pile up quickly, she could very well fall back to her usual niche as a second-tier star.
The key for Kerber is to ride her momentum into the upcoming spring with the confidence of a new and improved star. Can she get to more finals at star-studded tournaments like Dubai and Indian Wells? A few more great tournaments could go a long way to validating her Australian Open title. Strike while the iron is hot.
The grind of clay in April and May is a perfect medium to test her resolve. How bad does she want it? Is she willing to compete like Sharapova or Serena?
There will be more eyes watching her every result.