Tennis has a habit of filling voids at the top of the sport. It happens with such consistency that it could truly make one believe in existence of karma or “The Tennis Gods.”
Perhaps the clearest example of this is Stan Wawrinka. As the aughts gave way to the 2010s, the two emerging challengers to the Big Four were Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling, with del Potro even owning as many majors as Novak Djokovic (one) and more than Andy Murray (who wouldn’t win his first until 2012).
Unfortunately, del Potro’s never-ending run of wrist ailments hit, while illness took Soderling away from the sport. All of a sudden, the power-packed giants who stood in contrast to the Big Four were gone.
Wawrinka, however, hired Soderling’s former coach, Magnus Norman, and took his game to new heights in 2013, pushing Djokovic to fifth sets at both hardcourt majors before breaking through with a pair of Slams. Though highly variant and not a week-to-week threat, Wawrinka’s career soared to unforeseen heights in part due to Soderling’s illness.
The same void was present on the WTA around that time. Following her 13th Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2010, Serena Williams missed nearly a year due to stepping on glass and, later, a hematoma and pulmonary embolism. In addition to Serena’s health woes, Maria Sharapova was in the midst of a four-year Slam drought following a torn rotator cuff.
Well, that just happened to be the perfect time for Kim Clijsters to come out of retirement after having her first child. Having walked away from tennis with one lone major, Clijsters quadrupled her career count and bagged three hardcourt majors. By the time injuries had caught up with her again, Williams and Sharapova were back, along with a blosssoming Victoria Azarenka. In 2012, those three players took up eight of the 10 finalist spots at the four majors and the Olympic gold medal match, winning all five among them.
Speaking of Azarenka (and Sharapova, though for self-inflicted reasons), that brings us to now. As Angie Kerber extinguished the memorable dream run of Venus Williams in a fairly routine 6-4, 6-4 Wimbledon semifinal on Thursday, my colleague Matt Zemek (who wrote a pristine profile of the elder Williams following her quarterfinal win) brought up a very salient point on Twitter:
What Victoria Azarenka once was — before injuries got in the way — Angelique Kerber could be in the process of becoming. #TheLightWentOn
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) July 7, 2016
After Evert and Navratilova, there was Graf (and Seles), leading to the Williams sisters. The various men’s stars of the 1970s and 1980s flowed into the Sampras/Agassi era, and just as the ATP hit its lowest point, Federer arrived, followed by Nadal and Djokovic.
What has made the last couple years strange on both tours is the absence of those “replacements.” At abnormally old ages, Serena and Novak (there really isn’t a clean way to identify which Williams without seeming preferential in using first names, is there?) have utterly dominated the last 18 months, aided by the ATP’s “Lost Boys” Raonic/Nishikori/Dimitrov generation stalling out and an extremely inconsistent WTA elite which has been absent Azarenka – in what should be her peak – save for a brief dominant stretch to start this season.
That next threat that tennis always provided, someway, somehow, was simply absent.
The WTA seems to be getting closer to an answer though, with Garbine Muguruza and now Angie Kerber making a pair of major finals within the last year. After a decade light on continuity, Williams and Kerber will now become the first pair of women since Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin in 2006 to square off in multiple Grand Slam finals in the same year.
Serena booked her spot to her ninth (ninth!) Wimbledon final in peak form over Elena Vesnina, who has nothing to hang her head about in losing 6-2, 6-0. Serena was just that good, winning in such short time (48 minutes) that it triggered another round of sexist discussion about whether women earn their pay for such a short performance.
Even without that insulting nonsense, Kerber would have been overshadowed by Serena. While American outlets bemoan just missing out on one last all-Williams Grand Slam final, Kerber is an afterthought, despite beating Serena in January’s Australian Open final. Regardless of who lifts the trophy, the talk will revolve around Williams for a litany of reasons (unfortunate but understandable, given her legacy), as it will going forward into Rio, New York and beyond.
To make up for that, let it be said and appreciated here: Angie Kerber is a star and the clear WTA No. 2.
Though she has yet to win a Premier Mandatory or Premier 5 title, she’s headed for her fifth straight top-10 season and has won five Premier titles in the last 15 months. Also, while her Slam results look spotty at best, her recent losses are quite deceiving. Her last four defeats include high quality third-round three-set tussles in bad draws against Muguruza (twice) and Azarenka, along with a first-round loss this year in Paris to Kiki Bertens, who proved no fluke by reaching the semifinals.
Now Kerber, 28, has backed up her career-defining tournament in Australia in dominant fashion, having yet to drop a set in six victories and only escaping real trouble in a first-set tiebreak in the third round against fellow German Carina Witthöft.
Kerber’s maturity was on display against Venus, particularly in the second set. After a pair of double faults threatened to stall the momentum of being up a set and a break, she steeled herself with a rare ace that kicked off a sequence of effective serves to hold without issue, later closing it out with a phenomenal match point and her patented passing shot:
Once in the discussion for best active player without a Grand Slam, Kerber is now on the doorstep of joining the elite club of multi-Slam winners. It took a while, but someone finally emerged from the void and transformed their career. Tennis fans should be thankful that that player is Angie Kerber.