World no. 1s’ campaigns derailed by poor form

Angelique Kerber of Germany hitting a backhand against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit in the second round of the Italian Open on Wednesday. The world No. 68 Kontaveit won 6-4, 6-0.
Angelique Kerber of Germany hitting a backhand against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit in the second round of the Italian Open on Wednesday. The world No. 68 Kontaveit won 6-4, 6-0.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Kerber's shock loss to qualifier follows Murray's early exit from Italian Open

ROME • Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, the top-ranked men's and women's tennis players, have charted largely parallel wayward courses this year, struggling to summon the form that earned them their top rankings last year.

Neither will head to the French Open, which begins on May 28, with momentum of any sort, after each lost early at the Italian Open this week.

Murray lost in straight sets to 29th-ranked Fabio Fognini on Monday, while Kerber went out on Tuesday, losing the final 10 games against a qualifier, 68th-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, in a 6-4, 6-0 defeat in only 56 minutes.

"I just feel like I'm not playing well," Murray said after his loss. Similarly, Kerber observed: "I'm not playing my best tennis right now."

Their arcs have several similarities. Murray, 30, and Kerber, 29, assumed the top spot in the rankings for the first time last year.

Murray won Wimbledon and reached the finals of the Australian Open and the French Open. Kerber won the Australian Open and the US Open and reached the Wimbledon final.

  • TENNIS WORLD NO. 1 STARS' RECORD THIS YEAR

  • 16-6
    ANDY MURRAY (ONE TITLE)

  • 19-11
    ANGELIQUE KERBER (NO TITLES)

Both may have not adequately rested after gruelling campaigns. Murray ended the year by winning five tournaments in seven weeks; Kerber said she did not allow herself enough time "being in the moment" and resetting.

As top seeds at a Grand Slam event for the first time, both lost in the fourth round at this year's Australian Open, falling on the same day in January.

Murray's worst loss came at Indian Wells, California, in March, when he lost in straight sets to a qualifier, 129th-ranked Vasek Pospisil.

The loss to Kontaveit represented the worst loss of Kerber's year, though a loss last week to No. 60 Eugenie Bouchard added injury to insult, as she was forced to retire with a hamstring injury while trailing 3-6, 0-5.

Quality wins have been few and far between: Kerber is 0-7 against top-20 opponents and Murray is only 3-2 because he has often lost before facing one.

Their struggles have grown worse on clay, the weakest surface for both. Fognini exploited this especially well in his win over Murray, with frequent drop-shot winners.

After his loss to Fognini, Murray said: "I'm just not playing well, and I don't think it's to do with my ranking. I mean, the last couple of weeks, they have been tough."

Kerber, who has spent less time as a star attraction than Murray, conceded that her No. 1 ranking had brought new challenges.

"It's not the best time now," she said, "but you have always up and downs, and this is a challenge to come back - maybe stronger."

Kerber said she hoped for a turnaround: "I need one good match, maybe, to get also my confidence back and then to see that it works."

In a mixed blessing of sorts, neither Murray nor Kerber is likely to lose the No. 1 ranking any time soon.

Murray has a 3,515-point lead over Novak Djokovic, the No. 2 men's player.

Among the women, second-ranked Serena Williams is on maternity leave and will continue to fall in the rankings, and third-ranked Karolina Pliskova is at her least comfortable on clay courts.

Simona Halep, the No. 4, has a chance to make up the 1,830-point gap between her and Kerber with deep runs in Rome and in Paris, but she has often underachieved at Grand Slam events.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2017, with the headline 'World no. 1s’ campaigns derailed by poor form'. Print Edition | Subscribe