Tennis number one Angelique Kerber prepares to defend her Australian Open crown
Following an Australian Open win that no one saw coming, Germany’s Angelique Kerber has finally wrested the No. 1 ranking from Serena Williams. Now she’s preparing to return to defend her crown.
A week before this year's Australian Open, at the lead-up tournament in Sydney, German tennis player Angelique Kerber discovered a fondness not just for Tim Tams, but Vegemite as well. Later in January, after the women's singles final at Melbourne Park, two of the Women's Tennis Association's communications staff bought supplies of both foods to present to the unfancied outsider. It was a small gesture for Kerber on a night that surprised many.
When the WTA's Eloise Tyson and Catherine Sneddon entered the locker room with what, by then, felt like a slightly feeble offering of chocolate biscuits and yeast extract, they found the new holder of the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup enjoying her first grand slam title with her team. Having just upstaged the great Serena Williams on Rod Laver Arena and won $3.85 million, Kerber happily accepted the modest gift bag, munching on a Tim Tam and handing the packet around.
If that wasn't the typical champion's celebration, neither was what was to come the next morning. A pre-tournament bet saw Kerber, her coach Torben Beltz and physiotherapist Simon Iden – plus a German TV commentator – take a dip in the Yarra River, just as American Jim Courier had first done after his Open win back in 1992.
By the time a dripping Kerber was wrapped in a souvenir tournament towel, having wisely kept her blonde head above the water, her appreciation of most things Aussie had been warmly reciprocated. The proof was in Channel Seven's ratings for the final. With a peak national viewing audience of 2.88 million, the match was the most-watched program of the new year, until the Sunday-evening decider between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (2.9 million). Unusually, though, the women's final comfortably out-rated the men's in the host city.
A January that had started with Williams as the favourite to tie the grand slam singles record of Kerber's idol, fellow German Steffi Graf, finished not just with a surprise champion but with an unlikely new darling of the sport. A poster-girl for perseverance. A fitter, leaner, bolder player who had markedly improved her serve. No longer a choker – who, in the words of one insider, tended to retreat into her shell under pressure "like a turtle" – but instead a more determined risk-taker.
"In Australia, we love watching someone who gives their absolute best every single time, fights for every single point, and wants to run down every shot," says Australian Fed Cup captain and former world No. 8 Alicia Molik. "We also love an underdog, and a large majority of the population didn't think she would be holding the Australian Open trophy."
Nor would Kerber have imagined her triumph 12 days earlier, in the opening round against Japan's Misaki Doi, as she stared down a match point. She was, she said, "playing with one leg on the plane back home". So, I ask her, almost a year on, what if one shaky limb had become two?
"I still think about it a little bit sometimes," she says. "Because what's happened after this match, it's just incredible. Australian Open champion? That was for me the first, biggest emotion that I had."
Plenty more major accomplishments followed this past year: a maiden Wimbledon final, Rio Olympics silver, and a crucial follow-up grand slam success at the US Open, where she replaced Williams at the top of the WTA rankings. At 28, she's the oldest woman to reach No. 1 for the first time. Now, long after Graf and Boris Becker's glory days, even soccer-mad Germany is showing an interest in tennis again.
Angelique, born in the north-west German city of Bremen, is the first daughter of Polish-born Slawek Kerber, a club-level tennis coach, and his wife Beata, who still works part-time at a local tennis centre and helps with her eldest child's travel arrangements. Their second daughter, Jessica, now runs a cosmetics and nail studio in Kiel, two hours' drive north of Bremen. "We have a good relationship, but she is completely different than me," says Angelique with a smile. "She is not sporty at all. She can play tennis, but she was always, 'Okay, but I will not sweat.' "
Young Angie was more willing. As a three-year-old, she would hit soft balls and balloons indoors at home, against a wall. Was she good? Kerber believes she always had "the touch" on the basis that, well, "Nothing [got] broken! My mum was always worried that I would break something, but I think it was a good sign that I could hit in one spot."
Though a natural right-hander, Kerber started and stayed a tennis leftie. By her mid-teens, a special, if not extraordinary, talent was apparent. Her mum and dad, though, defied the stereotype of overly ambitious and interfering pro-tennis parents. Now divorced, they were supportive, driving her to practise and tournaments, but never forced the issue. "Completely the opposite," says Kerber. "They [were] actually telling me, 'Okay, let's just play once, not twice, today.' "
"Kerber's parents weren't pushy. 'They were actually telling me, Okay, let's just play once, not twice, today.'"
Since 2012, Kerber has lived in the western Polish village of Puszczykowo, near her maternal grandparents, extended family and her training base, the Angelique Kerber Tennis Academy, now known as the "Angie".
Her profile is lower in Poland, and although the trilingual dual citizen is rarely seen on red carpets, two social media posts on the same day this past November capture her changing world. Click. Lunch with Barack Obama in Berlin, captioned on Twitter as, "A dream come true!!" Smile. A black-tie moment with friend and fellow player Ana Ivanovic and Ivanovic's new husband, German footballing superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Yet winning the 2016 Australian Open in January required some adjustment in the months that followed. More demands – and more pressure. A tighter schedule. Some hard lessons, culminating with a shock first-round loss in her next grand slam event, the French Open, in May. "Everybody would like to have a piece of cake from you," she says, charmingly, her blue-eyed gaze direct. "But now I'm finding the balance to get used to it."
She seems without enemies in the locker room. Kerber's philosophy is simple: "I am trying to be nice to everybody and then of course everybody's nice to me." Non-tennis friends, too, are important. "They know me from the school time, from the beginning," she says. "They don't care about the tennis life and you can spend really a normal life with them." The attention is greater in her homeland. "Germany is of course my country. It's changed in Poland as well, a little bit, but not like in Germany." So, is it tempting to stay inside? Retreat, as she no longer does on the court? "No, I'm still doing what I am doing," she says, firmly. "That will not change at all."
As the saying goes, Kerber took a decade to become an overnight success; battling for eight seasons just to crack the top 50. "A lot of people doubted her because she had some progress, but it was small progress," says German tennis writer Doris Henkel. The most frequent criticism concerned her fitness. Her coach Torben Beltz has said it, and Kerber agrees: she didn't always work hard enough. Her significant upward trajectory started at the 2011 US Open, where she reached the semi-finals, despite being ranked No. 92 in the world. Arriving in Australia last January, she was sleeker after exhaustive pre-season training, but retained her famously powerful quadriceps and the ability to hit her trademark groundstrokes while almost squatting on the baseline. Thanks to her conditioning, though, she could now run and run and run.
Does she wish she'd addressed her fitness earlier? "When I look right now to my career, I think everything came to the best time, because I don't know if I could have handled this, like, five or four years ago. Now I have a lot of experience, and at this age, I know how to deal with it and I really try to enjoy [it]. It's better than if I won it at 18."
Monica Seles, who was 16 when she claimed the first of her nine major titles before a deranged fan of Graf's stabbed her courtside in Hamburg in 1993, says freeswinging innocence can help to mitigate the difficulty of a first grand-slam final win: "The second one is really when you're like, 'Okay, I kind of belong here. I want to prove – not just to everybody in tennis, around sports, but to myself – that I'm meant to be here.' And I think that's what Kerber really did so well."
Although Kerber lost to Williams in straight sets at the Wimbledon final in July, it was a highly competitive final between the world's top two players. But it was this year's Olympic Games that succeeded in raising the profile of a German player who was not the Goethe- and Oscar Wilde-loving Andrea Petkovic, or the extroverted socialite Sabine Lisicki. And it was the US Open that proved she was no one-slam wonder, and that she really did deserve her No. 1 status.
Coach Beltz, the amiable father-of-two with whom she first collaborated as a junior (they split in 2013 before reuniting in early 2015), attributes her rise to more than just fitness and a better serve. "It's the confidence she has now and, for sure, her good powerful strokes. It all comes together and it's really clicking." There is also more positive body language. Kerber talks of not just hoping any more, but "taking it", and not waiting for others to falter.
"She was the forgotten top-tenner, to be quite frank," says respected WTA senior writer Courtney Nguyen. "She's just sort of grown into herself. You knew she could play these great matches; you also knew if it got tight in the third set, she probably wasn't gonna win 'em. To start the year off the way she did and beat Serena set the tone for the rest of the year, but even then we were, like, 'Fluke' – because we've seen those before. So for her to end it with the US Open, I don't think people saw that coming."
One clutch forehand down the line in that New York final against Czech Karolina Pliskova symbolised the evolution from very good to great, says Nguyen. "I'm like, 'No way old Angie does that.' She's seizing her destiny: 'Win or lose, I'm going for it.' "
Commercially, Kerber has not always been an easy sell. There have been long-term contracts with sportswear and racquet companies, and a deal with Porsche was signed in 2015. The newest sponsors are the world's third-largest insurance company and a cosmetics house bearing the motto: Be original. Be natural. Be good.
When Kerber's manager, Aljoscha Thron, a former player and now qualified doctor who returned as her agent in mid-2016, describes her as the most popular sportswoman in Germany, it is with the caveat that this is a country where soccer rules. Still, for the first time since Graf competed almost two decades ago, Germany's two biggest free-to-air networks televised the WTA Finals, the organisation's flagship year-end event. Where once it was a big deal for Kerber to do two TV interviews a year, Thron describes the past four months as a "media hurricane".
Kerber, though, is determined to stay just as she is, despite being the second woman after Williams to earn $US10 million in a single season. After her big Melbourne Park moment, Kerber made a point of asking the German media to let her know if she ever changed.
"I think she's not so different," says Beltz. "Her game changes, yes, because she plays more aggressive and much better tennis now, but she was a very nice girl when we started, when she was 15 or 16 years old, and she's still a nice girl."
Next month, Kerber returns to Melbourne to defend her title. By her side will be Beltz, whose superstitious streak means he shaves only after Kerber is eliminated from a tournament (and who was happy to sport a dodgy moustache through Asia – as he promised to do if she won the US Open). The coach would have no problem taking a second swim. "The Yarra River was not the worst thing I have done," he says with a laugh. Kerber, though, will not take another plunge should a second Australian Open title arrive. "I will do everything to win it again, that's for sure the goal, but I will not jump again in the Yarra River," she says, in a decision as sound as her choice of biscuit.