Tennis: Expectations evolve but Kerber dances to her own beat

Above: (Front row, from left) Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep take part in a public workout conducted by adidas at Far East Square. Left: Kerber with a 718 Cayman at Porsche Centre Singapore.
Above: (Front row, from left) Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep take part in a public workout conducted by adidas at Far East Square. Left: Kerber with a 718 Cayman at Porsche Centre Singapore.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG, LAU FOOK KONG
Above: (Front row, from left) Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep take part in a public workout conducted by adidas at Far East Square. Left: Kerber with a 718 Cayman at Porsche Centre Singapore.
Above: Kerber with a 718 Cayman at Porsche Centre Singapore.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG, LAU FOOK KONG

A picture of Angelique Kerber hangs prominently in each of the Women's Tennis Association's (WTA) four offices across the world. Taken last month, the 28-year-old was beaming beside an iconic New York City yellow taxi, her palms wrapped around the world No. 1 crown, a trophy designed to represent the tennis universe.

A symbolic shot, both for the city where the German's coronation was complete after winning the US Open, and for someone who now has the tennis world in her hands.

Kerber's ascent to the peak has been laborious, a climb that took more than 13 years before the world saw that the contender in her also had what it took to be a champion.

Even though it took two Grand Slam titles, a Wimbledon final, an Olympic silver and a world No. 1 ranking - all within one stellar season - to finally earn that nod from onlookers, this leftie from Bremen never lacked that self-belief.

"It's been one of the best years, a little bit crazy. Of course it's always nice that it can happen now, and I have such success this year," she told The Straits Times yesterday.

"(But) it's not that I wasn't believing in this, that this can happen."

In town for the Oct 23-30 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Kerber was at the Porsche Centre Singapore where - as its global brand ambassador - she helped unveil the German automobile manufacturer's new Cayman 718.

Backed by a team that she credits for believing in her - often more than she does in herself - she said her years of grinding on the Tour provided precious lessons, even if it did not yield the most coveted trophies until recently. Among them: Keeping the faith when you have seemingly forgotten how to win.

Her hardest lesson in soldiering on came in 2011, a season she calls the toughest of her career so far, when she endured five first-round exits in a row to start the year, then six more such bitter pills over the rest of the year.

Said Kerber, who became the oldest player to make a debut at world No. 1 when she clinched the ranking last month: "Some days you're thinking, is this the right way you're doing? Is this what you love? That was really tough time for me.

"People watch how we play matches, but they don't see how we practise, how tough it is... sometimes people don't understand too much."

When sweet victory finally did come, however, it also revealed the need to set aside that winning sensation quickly, lest it robs one of hunger and fight.

It was the ability to do that - albeit through a brief slump after January's Australian Open triumph - that allowed Kerber to succeed where others have struggled, quickly backing up a maiden Grand Slam win with more success.

"Everything was new," she recalled of the period after winning her first Grand Slam. "I was struggling a few weeks after because it was a new challenge, and I lost the first round (at the French Open).

"Nobody gives you a match - that is what I understood after my first Grand Slam title. When I'm going on court, I focus on what I love, what I practised for, and not think that I've won a Grand Slam."

As the world's top-ranked player and the season's best performer, Kerber is well aware her fourth appearance at the WTA Finals comes with vastly different expectations. She will again need to put her status as a proven champion aside, if she is to make it out of the round robin stage for the first time.

No matter. Through the evolving expectations of others, Kerber has always believed in her abilities.

She said: "At the end of the day, I'm still the same person and that has been very important to me, to stay like I am."

For even though she has never seen for herself the framed image that hangs in Florida, Singapore, London and Beijing, Kerber had always pictured herself where she is now - standing at the peak of the tennis world.

UPBEAT MUGURUZA

•Tickets to the Oct 23-30 WTA Finals are available on Sports Hub Tix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'Expectations evolve but Kerber dances to her own beat'. Print Edition | Subscribe