What's your game plan?
As a member of the international tennis elite, she has experienced first-hand ups and downs: performance slumps and outstanding matches, harsh critics and jubilant fans. Not everyone comes out on top after such a ride. But Angelique Kerber is not ‘everyone’; she’s not like others looking to be in the limelight and raise their profile. Angelique is modest, she lets her performance speak for itself and is particularly adept when it comes to finding the right balance between rational thinking and emotion.
Her win at the Australian Open in 2016 set the stage for an historic year on the tour – Kerber went on to become only the second German after Steffi Graff to hold the world number one WTA ranking, and also win a second Grand Slam at the US Open. I spoke to her just after her victory in Melbourne in 2016 and asked her about what was driving her to success on the court.
This is Angelique Kerber’s game plan.
When all the excitement has died down, what will you personally remember most about this success?
There are three things I’ll always remember. The first, of course, is that I’ve achieved what I’ve been pursuing ever since I first set foot on a tennis court. The second is that special moment when I lift the trophy in the air – that was an unforgettable feeling. And the third and most personal is the fact that I am one of very few female players who can say “I won a Grand Slam title” at the end of their career. That makes me the first German female tennis player to have won the title since Steffi Graf did 17 years ago. I can’t begin to tell you just how much that means to me. These are the things I’ve taken away for myself and no one can take that away from me.
You’ve also experienced the flip side of the sport and gone through phases where success has eluded you and doubt and uncertainty have prevailed. How did you turn that around?
There are bound to be low points in anyone’s career, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of them. But what has always mattered the most are the people I am close to. My family stood beside me even during these difficult times. And I knew whether I carried on playing tennis or did something else entirely, I could always count on them. That gave me a feeling of inner calm, because I knew I wasn’t alone. Privately or professionally – no one is immune to self-doubt. At one point in the middle of my career, I asked myself if I was doing the right thing. So I put my racket aside for a couple of weeks and listened to my inner self and whether my heart was still beating for tennis. It wasn’t long before I began to miss it, and that’s when it became clear to me that this sport is my life. I’m an emotional person and tend to go with my gut feeling. And that’s exactly what I did in this case. I was certain that wasn’t the end, that there was more to come.
There have already been so many ups and downs in my career: I played in the top ten for four years straight, but I’ve also had to endure harsh criticism and listen to experts saying: “Let’s see whether she can go the whole way or not.” I think I proved that to everyone with my Grand Slam title – above all, to myself.
How did you prepare for the most important game of your career so far?
Strangely, I was able to sleep really well! (laughs). But the day of the final was very long. I didn’t play the final match until half past seven in the evening and I couldn’t really take my mind off it in the hours leading up to it. I tried reading a book to calm myself down, but that didn’t help at all. There were so many thoughts rushing around my head and I didn’t know what to expect as it was my first Grand Slam final. I had no idea what it would be like – a new experience, a new atmosphere. But then for my own sake I just decided to enjoy the match while on the other hand still seizing the opportunity I had. I knew that, to win the title, I’d have to be on top form and muster up all my strength on that very evening, on that court, against my opponent. I was nervous to say the least – it’s always easier said than done when you’re finally standing there on the court. But no matter the outcome of the final, my goal was to be able to say: “I earned my place in the final!” That’s how I psyched myself up for the situation.
“Shortly before I went out onto the court, I just kept telling myself I had to believe in myself if I wanted to win. And I showed Serena Williams that, too. I subconsciously sent out the message that it was not for nothing that I was her opponent in this final and that I believed I could beat her today.”Angelique Kerber, Tennis Player
That was the critical turning point. My self-confidence gave me a boost and let me play freely. Even though I was fairly keyed up at the start, my nervousness dissipated as the game went on. The most important thing to remember in such extreme situations is not to let the pressure get the better of you.
Last year, you clearly and publicly announced your intention to ‘go for gold’ in 2016. Why did you feel the need to make such a statement? Did you need the pressure?
No, not at all – I just realised I was ready for it. It’s all well and good being in the top ten for four years running, but it was important for me to express what was really going on inside my head and what my goals were. That’s why I made that statement last year and followed through on it.
What’s it like working towards a goal for so long and having the moment arrive when you achieve that goal – what comes next?
I really was on a high for weeks afterwards. But at some point your emotions relax and only then do you truly realise what you’ve achieved. I needed a couple of days to come to terms with the fact that I’d won a Grand Slam. But after that a completely different kind of inner calm set in. Perhaps because I knew I’d done it. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost any of my motivation. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’m driven to achieve even greater things and, no matter what happens now, no one can take this victory away from me. That’s how I feel right now. I’ll see how that feeling changes over the next few months, and how other players are towards me. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though, is that they have even greater respect for me now than they did before.