What does it look like when a talented player finally puts the pieces together in the moment when she most desperately needs to do so?
Samantha Jane Stosur did this at the 2011 U.S. Open against Elena Dementieva on one Sunday, and then against Serena Williams one Sunday later.
Francesca Schiavone, after many years of laboring in the vineyard of tennis, won the 2010 Roland Garros title in a Life is Beautiful moment Roberto Benigni could not have scripted any better.
Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci enjoyed their moments in the sun last September, with Pennetta orchestrating the perfect sendoff to a career with a major championship at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Some athletes — think Rafael Nadal or Monica Seles — capture excellence at an early age, understanding exactly what it takes to become a champion and making a beeline to the mountaintop. Other athletes need a few years to sort through the complexities of elite competition, but once they solve the central problems of their professional lives, they take off: See Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Other athletes spend much of their careers in the shadows, lurking and looming and floating in that second tier just below the elites. They show they can win stacks of smaller tournaments. They plant themselves in the top 15, even the back end of the top 10. However, the bigger moments and the more established pros put a ceiling on their achievements.
Yes, Angelique Kerber did make a major semifinal before — at both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 Wimbledon. When she reached the last four at The All-England Club three and a half years ago, she was 24 and a half years old, about to step into a tennis player’s prime period. Kerber’s court coverage and electric, crackling groundstrokes were quite evident even then. Surely, this was a player who — while perhaps not ready to win major titles in the Age of Serena Williams — was going to park herself in a lot of major quarterfinals and semifinals.
Kerber’s tally of major quarterfinals since that 2012 Wimbledon run? One (2014 Wimbledon), without a subsequent semifinal.
At that 2014 Wimbledon tournament, Kerber defeated Maria Sharapova in a sprawling and enthralling round-of-16 match, a jawdropping display of defense turned into offense. It was the best tennis Kerber had in her bones and marrow, the kind of tennis which outclassed the second-most accomplished player on tour, exceeded only by Serena.
When Kerber put her mind to it, she could deliver exalted tennis. The three and a half years since the 2012 Wimbledon fortnight had represented a vast and continuous missed opportunity. Usually, she simply failed to bring her best to the biggest tournaments. On a few occasions, however, she did play to her capabilities.
Players such as Victoria Azarenka simply managed to be a little better.
It was, for many seasoned tennis observers, the best women’s singles match of 2015:
Kerber traded howitzers with Azarenka in three mesmerizing sets. For all the times Kerber simply left money on the table at a major, this was not one of them. Kerber had the misfortune of running into an accomplished player who managed to be a little better on the day. Such an experience can easily reaffirm that sad but persistent song inside the mind of an “almost” athlete:
“I’m never going to get over the hump. I keep trying, but it’s not enough. I just can’t put it all together again on the biggest stages.”
Failure is, of course, necessary for growth. None of us succeeds without first tasting how difficult it is to achieve something. We have to have a sense of how hard an endeavor is in order to subsequently understand what success requires. Some athletes need just a small pinch of failure to get it right. Others need a year or two. For Kerber — who turned 28 on the day the 2016 Australian Open began — the biological tennis clock was tick- tick- ticking. She consulted Germany’s greatest tennis player, Steffi Graf, but the belief Kerber says she gained from Graf still had to be translated into results.
Wednesday afternoon in Melbourne, that translation finally occurred.
Against Azarenka, a nemesis, Kerber watched a 4-0 first-set lead turn into a 4-3 cliffhanger which easily could have become a 4-4 stalemate. Plenty of #TennisTwitter residents wondered if a loose 4-0 game was going to come back to bite Kerber — the belief was not an unreasonable one. It had roots in the past several years of tennis history, encompassing the German’s career and (more particularly) her track record at the majors.
Kerber had to walk over the hot coals of pressure against a formidable opponent, a two-time major champion and the majority pre-tournament selection as the Australian Open favorite. Graf’s inspiration was there, but it needed to be called forth and internalized.
In that searing moment of truth, Angelique Kerber figured things out. Her ability to finally vault over her fears and doubts — without on-court coaching, it should be added — is why so many of us enjoy not just tennis, but the major-tournament crucible which reveals such beautiful transformations in the people who play this endlessly fascinating sport.
Kerber walked through the valley of the shadow of failure at 4-3 and held for 5-3, promptly closing out the set by breaking Azarenka’s serve. After Azarenka took a 5-2 lead in the second set and worked her way to set point, it seemed that Azarenka was once again about to pull off a three-set victory, matching the extended battle which emerged in New York four and a half months earlier. However, Kerber — infused with the extra pinch of belief which is simultaneously missing from Azarenka — mounted a remarkable rally. Saving set points at 2-5 flipped the second-set script. Azarenka lost her comfort zone, becoming desperate and impatient in the attempt to reclaim it. Kerber was the steadier player, while Azarenka — calling to mind her quarterfinal loss to Simona Halep at last year’s U.S. Open — revealed a volatility which has persisted in her game over the past few years. She’s obviously not all the way back as many (yours truly included) thought she was.
Angelique Kerber, though, crossed a threshold after years of falling short. As she said after the match — and it is definitely true — she won this, as opposed to Azarenka losing it:
Kerber: "I think the key from this match was that I was playing and I won the match. She doesn't lose it; I actually won it."
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 27, 2016
Yes, Kerber does need to beat Johanna Konta in the semifinals in order to reach her first major final and affirm her ascension in the tennis ranks. Nevertheless, even if she suffered an upset, she can still point to the added degree of court presence she displayed against Victoria Azarenka as a sign that her career is ready for a renaissance at the majors, where reputations are most centrally shaped and defined. Kerber can point to the absence of the meltdowns which have dogged her in recent years.
Absence, presence and ascension — these words loom large for Angelique Kerber. The demons which were so present in the recent past were banished. The hopes and longings which were buried at many major tournaments from 2013 through 2015 have been given a new springtime.
They’ll blossom even more if Kerber is able to do something on Thursday which she’s never done before: make the final of a major tournament.