INTERVIEW: Kerber on being world No1

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  • Leader of the pack: Kerber (Credit: Visual China Group).

    In January, Angelique Kerber made the final in Brisbane then won her maiden grand slam title at the Australian Open. In April, she won the Premier title in Stuttgart.

    In June, she made the Wimbledon final. In August, she claimed an Olympic silver medal then reached the final in Cincinnati.

    This month, she clinched her second major by triumphing at the US Open and ended Serena Williams’ three-and-a-half-year reign to snag the world No1 ranking.

    It is now nearly October and Kerber is still going.

    At the end of an emotionally, physically and mentally draining long season, the 28-year-old German is still standing. Scratch that. She’s still RUNNING all over the courts in Wuhan, battling for nearly three and a half hours before losing a tight last-16 clash against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday night.

    She has played 70 matches so far in 2016, and has won 55 of them.

    Kerber has already locked down her spot at the WTA Finals in Singapore. She could have given herself a break until the October 23-30 season finale. Instead, she has chosen to keep going.

    With Serena Williams opting out of the events in China citing shoulder problems (she’s played just eight tournaments in 2016), Maria Sharapova sidelined due to her failed drugs test, and Victoria Azarenka out of action because she is pregnant, Kerber’s incredible achievements this year, and her continued commitment are exactly what the sport needs at the moment.

    She’s aware of the responsibility on her shoulders and is happy to take it on.

    “I think I will try my best to do a good job. I’m actually looking forward to this challenge,” Kerber told Sport360 on the sidelines of the Wuhan Open.

    “It will be a completely new situation. I know there are still really good players behind me and they’re playing really well, so it will be always a tough battle in each tournament.”

    Kerber, born in Bremen to a Polish father and German mother, turned pro when she was just 15 years old. Her coach, Torben Beltz, with whom she reunited in March last year, met her as a junior in Germany and has helped guide her, on and off, for the better part of the last 12 years.

    “In Germany she was outstanding in the youth, she was winning the U18s when she was like 15 or 16. She was a big talent already,” recalls Beltz.

    “We didn’t know then that she would become No1 in the world maybe, but she was No1 in Germany and we knew she was really good.”

    The 39-year-old has been a major driving force in Kerber’s rise. Besides the fact that he knows her game better than anyone else, the key ingredient is that they get along.

    “He knows me really well, he knows my game, he knows how to speak with me, when to speak with me, so the trust is there and that’s a really important part of our team,” Kerber says of her coach.

    Beltz had a bet with Kerber that he will not shave throughout the ongoing Asian swing if she won the US Open. Having lost the bet, an unshaven Beltz sat across me in Wuhan as we talked about his protégée.

    So why does he think they’ve managed to form such a successful partnership?

    “I think everything fits together, we have a big focus on the court, we can work hard together all the time, and we also have fun outside. We like to play games like backgammon or whatever. I think it’s a fun time,” Beltz explains.

    Do they get competitive with each other?

    “Tennis I’m not winning, but backgammon I have some more chances I guess,” he adds laughing.

    Kerber had been in the top-10 for most of the past five years, but what vaulted her to No1 this season was undoubtedly her much improved mental strength.

    In 2016 alone, Kerber has experienced every possible version of pressure and has succeeded almost every time.

    From rallying back from a match point down against Misaki Doi in the Australian Open first round, to beating Serena Williams as the underdog in the final there, to battling for a medal for her country in Rio, to defeating Karolina Pliskova as the favourite in the US Open final… Kerber, the same player who crumbled under the pressure in Singapore last year when she failed to win the one set she needed to make the semis, is now a mastermind on the tennis court.

    “That’s the most improvement I’ve done in the last few months – my mentality with the pressure and the things around me,” says Kerber.

    Did she worry after winning in Melbourne that a second slam wouldn’t come?

    “After Australia I thought about this. Not directly after, but a few weeks after. That was my first one and I was always dreaming for that. And after that, I was thinking ‘okay maybe I can win a few more, now I know how it works’,” she says.

    “New York was for sure a little bit different, because it was harder with the fact that I could reach the No1. It started in Cincinnati that everybody was talking about this, the pressure was actually really hard.

    “I don’t know how I handled that. I was trying not to listen to this. Of course it’s easier said than done but I did it. I was trying to do it every single day until the end. Mentally I was really strong to deal with that.”

    Beltz gave Kerber the belief against Pliskova in that US Open final, which was particularly tricky because the Czech had beaten Kerber three weeks earlier to win the Cincinnati trophy.

    “I think it’s good to win as the underdog, and the Australian Open final against Serena was perfect, was awesome. But then it’s good that now she’s in the position to be the favourite. I think she deserved it and she played for this and I told her that ‘you deserve to be the favourite now because you’re playing good tennis’. And I think in the end she showed also that she was the favourite and that she was there before,” said the German coach.

    The road to grand slam glory and No1 has been long and hard, and Kerber is enjoying it all at the mature age of 28. She has no regrets though over the time that has passed.

    “I’m actually happy because now I can enjoy it much more. I think with all the experience and ups and downs in my career I can now really focus on the positive things and the positive emotions. I’m really happy it happened now and not like a few years ago,” she insists.

    Kerber and Beltz have yet to sit down and talk about the future and what more they’d like to achieve together as their focus remains on what’s left of 2016.

    Beltz is happy that for once, they are not spending the last few weeks of the season counting points and trying to figure out what Kerber needs to do to qualify for the WTA Finals. They’re both grateful, that qualification spot has already been secured.

    Kerber though already knows what elements of her game she’d like to improve.

    “To play more aggressive, working still on my serve, there are a few things I’d like to work on. And maybe running a little bit more, fitness is always something you can improve,” she says.

    It is that constant yearning for progress that has got Kerber where she is today.

    Even her peers cannot deny her No1 ranking was well-earned.

    Poland’s world No4, Agnieszka Radwanska has known Kerber for years and even jokingly tried to recruit her to play for Poland in Fed Cup since Kerber lives and trains in Puszczykowo and has a Polish passport from her father. She is one of many who have heaped praise on the German star this week in Wuhan.

    “She was really the one who really deserved that. She was playing great tennis. She is still playing great tennis, from the beginning, from Australian Open till now, and showing unbelievable game on every surface,” said Radwanska. “What she did this year, it’s really incredible. She really deserves to be No 1.”

    Imagine a more attacking, big-serving, faster-running Kerber. Now that’s a scary thought. WTA, beware!