Osaka and Kerber

Angelique Kerber is in a strange place right now. She’s had an incredible career — this is a woman who won two majors in 2016, beating Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open. She reached #1 that same year. Kerber has won three majors in total, across two different surfaces. Today, she is ranked 15th in the world, which is far from bad, but she is now regarded as more of a dark horse than a reliable threat to win big titles. Kerber showed flashes of form last year, especially at Wimbledon, where she made the semifinals before losing to the recently retired Ash Barty.

Kerber is a supremely skilled ballstriker. She is able to change direction of the ball at will and can see angles others wouldn’t dream of. Crucially, though, she doesn’t have a ton of easy power. She tends to have to slog through her wins, especially against top players. When she beat Serena in the 2016 Australian Open final, she played incredible defense (this is the other pillar of her game) to the extent that she got back in points she looked dead in. Sometimes Serena would even miss a putaway. It was amazing, but not particularly sustainable. Defense is crucial, a necessary quality if one is to succeed at tennis, but at the end of the day, doing it constantly is not where you want to be. Kerber avoids defending too much by staying glued to the baseline and taking groundstrokes on the rise, a tactic Leylah Fernandez has also begun to employ. In this way, she retains some control in matches against more powerful players, though it’s a fragile hold — if her timing is even a little bit off, things go awry in a hurry.

Kerber has been struggling so far this year. She has played five matches and lost three of them. She remains dangerous when playing well; she was up a set on Iga Świątek at Indian Wells, who went on to win the tournament. Still, it only gets more difficult to defend successfully as the years go by, and Kerber is now 34. You get the sense that her career doesn’t have too many years left.

Kerber played Naomi Osaka in the second round of the Miami Open, who in many ways is her opposite. Osaka is tremendously powerful, both with her serve and from the baseline. Unlike Kerber, she can fire away accurately and routinely close out matches in an hour. She is a better player overall, having won four majors to Kerber’s three (Osaka is also a decade younger), but especially on hard courts. In the last three and a half years, Osaka has won four majors on hard court, during which time Kerber has not made a major final on hard.

Osaka’s success is precarious in a different way than Kerber’s. Her game rarely flinches, but tennis hasn’t always been kind to Osaka, and its barbs have produced scars in the past couple years. At Roland-Garros last year, Osaka tried to preemptively withdraw from press conferences, but the backlash from the majors was so vicious that she dropped out of the tournament despite having advanced to the second round. Just two weeks ago at Indian Wells, a fan yelled “you suck!” to Osaka in the middle of her match, and she broke down mid-match and couldn’t recover. She said during press that her goal was to play as few tournaments as possible. It is becoming increasingly clear that Osaka’s mentality is not suited to the relentless nature of the circuit. She hasn’t won a tournament since the 2021 Australian Open.

So the Miami Open clash was intriguing not just because two multiple major champions were meeting, but because each was struggling, and in their own distinct way. Beating a fellow major champion can generate a lot of confidence.

*****

The match was over in an hour. Osaka hit winners with incredible frequency — 33 in total — and from impressive positions. She dominated with the one-two punch on both first serves and second serves. Several times, Kerber would hit a decent return, putting Osaka slightly on the defensive. Osaka would get back in the rally and crush a winner on the first ball Kerber left hanging. Kerber couldn’t do much to hit back, but it was less that she played badly than that she wasn’t allowed to play well. It’s hard to change the direction of the ball when groundstrokes are coming at you with enough force to knock you over.

The conditions were windy, but Osaka’s shots had such weight that they cut through the breeze. Early on, a Tennis Channel graphic showed that Osaka was hitting her forehands an average of 10 mph faster than Kerber, and her backhands 17 mph harder. Osaka could aim for pretty safe targets and hit winners anyway due to the pace on her groundstrokes. Every time a Kerber shot sat up a bit, you could have paused the stream and said “winner,” and seconds later, Osaka would deliver.

The match showed how easily the head-to-head stat can lose its relevance. Kerber led this rivalry 4-1, but Osaka had improved immeasurably since their last match in late 2018. There was no solace for Kerber in the head-to-head since the old patterns that had worked were no longer viable against the new version of Osaka. It was clear that Kerber had to put Osaka on the run to take some of the sting off the four-time major champion’s shots, but aiming for the lines isn’t Kerber’s style, and Osaka’s flawless play only increased the pressure.

Osaka made a bad mistake on her second match point, bashing a short backhand into the net. It was her first chance to really get nervous, but she coolly fired a forehand winner on the next point, then awaited Kerber’s error in a rally to close out the match. Kerber walked off the court quickly. She did not wave.

When Osaka plays this kind of tennis, the world (at least on hard courts) is hers. She seemed calm after the match, as though she had merely met the expectations she had set for herself instead of playing her best in at least a year. Distractions did not come into play; this match was only ever about the tennis. Waving to the crowd, Osaka smiled slightly. She looked comfortable.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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