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Angelique Kerber Showing She'll Struggle to Keep Hold of No. 1 Ranking

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 26, 2016

SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 25:  Angelique Kerber of Germany celebrates victory in her singles match against Simona Halep of Romania during day 3 of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore at Singapore Sports Hub on October 25, 2016 in Singapore.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Angelique Kerber impressively finished off Simona Halep in group play at the WTA Finals in Singapore, looking like the world No. 1 player who won the Australian and U.S. Opens. She streamlined her long sweeping forehand and moved around the baseline like a gazelle with a 6-4, 6-2 statement win.

So far so good for the determined German superstar who could enhance her position at the top with the year-end championship. She’s matured into a confident champion who is unlikely to falter in 2016 the way she did in Singapore one year ago, when she bowed down before the semifinals with a straight-sets loss to Lucie Safarova.

“Of course I have much more confidence right now because I know how to win very big matches, tight matches," Kerber said, per WTA Tennis. "I know what to do to go for it and just take the game in my hands. Of course I believe much more in my game and in myself than like 12 months ago, especially after Singapore one year ago.”

Winning Singapore would be the cherry on top of a career renaissance in 2016, a symbolic rise from fragile contender to the queen of tennis; it could also be crucial in her hopes of hanging on to the No. 1 ranking into February.

German's Angelique Kerber plays against Romania's Simona Halep in their women's singles match during the WTA finals tennis tournament in Singapore on October 25, 2016. / AFP / ROSLAN RAHMAN        (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ROSLAN RAHMAN/Getty Images
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Style and Substance

All tennis fans should be Kerber fans. There’s everything to love about the way she tracks down each ball with her strong legs and unorthodox reach. Her southpaw forehand often dips and slides across her body like she’s sweep-rowing across an Olympics competition pond. She’s the best counterpuncher in tennis, but even that needs to be redefined.

Kerber’s a defensive offender, or an offensive defender, depending on who she plays. She’s deadly with her short angles and passing shots after luring her opponent into unfamiliar areas in the forecourt. She’s usually money in the late stages, with her 17-6 record in three-set matches in 2016. She’s also 10-3 against top-10 opponents.

Best of all, Kerber proved that her Australian Open title was no fluke. She rebounded from a tough clay-court spring to land in the Wimbledon and Olympics finals, before blowing her opportunity to supplant Serena Williams for the No. 1 ranking with her loss to Karolina Pliskova at the Western & Southern final.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Angelique Kerber of Germany celebrates the victory during the trophy presentation after beating Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic in 3 sets in the women's final at Arthur Ashe Stadium on day 13 of the 2016 US Open at USTA Bi
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Kerber hit her absolute peak in turning the tables on Pliskova in the U.S. Open final, coming back from a break down to win in three sets and validate her rise as the new No. 1 player.

But it’s not easy to play like Kerber, let alone win at the highest level month after month. She found her optimum zone, a tightrope straddling passive resistance and overly aggressive shotmaking. There are days she grazes the net and fits her shots into spaces no larger than a floor tile. She’s a beautiful grinder when everything is clicking.

But will she maintain her perfect storm of attack?

The downside is that Kerber needs every ounce of her leg power and precision. The toil of nine months caught up with her when the calendar changed to autumn. She looked weary and unable to muster that same spirit in the Far East, going 5-3 but losing all three matches against seeded players.

By Hong Kong, an ailing Kerber had wrapped her upper-right thigh with bandages and looked for all the world like she was trying to patch together a cameo appearance in Singapore.

Two matches and two wins look great heading into her Thursday match against powerful American youngster Madison Keys. Kerber might need to win only one set to get into the semifinals, but as well as she has played this week, nothing is guaranteed for the blue-collar superstar. She cannot let up lest she get hit off the court by the big-hitting Keys. She must always prepare for the struggle, win or lose.

All-in will get Kerber the win, but one ounce less and it’s a loss. She lives on the edge.

Andy Wong/Associated Press

            

Stocking up for 2017

Kerber came to Singapore leading world No. 2 Serena Williams by 950 points. It’s a slim advantage considering that she was unable to pile up points while the American was sidelined since the U.S. Open. She lost 730 points this time around in Asia.

Had Serena played a couple tournaments in China and Singapore, it’s almost a surety that she would have reclaimed her crown. And her absence gives Kerber redemption at gathering rankings points.

This week, she’s picked up 460 valuable points in winning her first two matches, and she’s likely to advance to the semifinals where she will stand with 690 earned points. As a finalist, Kerber would suddenly be up 2,000 points on Serena; if she wins the championship, those 1,500 points will fatten her lead from 950 to 2,450.

That’s a huge determining factor for January when Kerber must defend 305 points at Brisbane and 2,000 points at Melbourne. She will need that points insurance because Serena could otherwise cut into her lead and take back the No. 1 crown with a better Australian Open result.

Kerber needs the Singapore title this weekend for a strong chance to extend her No. 1 ranking into February where she would pass her 20th consecutive week as the No. 1-ranked player.

Meanwhile, other contenders are eager to be the next Kerber. They’ve seen the German’s grit and success. They know they could channel their gifts into climbing to the top of a brave new world in which Serena is aging and vulnerable.

Halep could be the one to shore up three rising seasons and find that extra gear to the top. She just needs that major title and the floodgates could open. Like Kerber, she must grind and play hard on every point. She’s hungry right now and must realize that the future is now.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza has all the tools to dominate tennis if she can find the focus she needs after a restful offseason.

Maybe Karolina Pliskova’s big serve and power will take the leap into superstardom with a dominant 2017. A few breaks and a dash of confidence could make her the favorite before too long.

So Kerber has her work cut out for her, as usual. She’s never had it easy, and more than ever she cannot relax from a year of remarkable success if she wants to fight off the rest in early 2017.

She’s not the signature favorite, but she’s been a worthy conqueror to No. 1. It’s time to see how she does when the Earth begins to quake beneath her feet.

Kerber is going to have to run and fight at an even higher level, and the key to everything will be embracing the struggle to hold on to No. 1.

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