Angelique Kerber stood beaming in the South Plaza of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Behind her, Arthur Ashe Stadium rose like the Colosseum, a 24,000-seat proving ground built, ironically, atop a former ash heap.
— Richard Osborn (@RWOsborn) September 11, 2016
Clutching a Tiffany & Co. trophy, she posed for a semi-circled horde of photographers. The Bremen-born baseliner had just put the finishing touches on her second major title of 2016 and, for the first time in her career, was the world No. 1. She was the oldest player to debut atop the rankings since 25-year-old Jennifer Capriati in 2001. It was a pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow moment for Kerber, more than a decade into her pro career.
It was only fitting that, amidst the fountains-and-sunshine mix beside her, a rainbow should appear.
At 28, she had finally realized her wildest tennis dreams. However, the woman who’s widely become known by her abbreviated moniker — Angie — wasn’t finished just yet. Though she would struggle to replicate those results the following year, dropping to No. 21, the player long tagged to fill the void left by countrywoman Steffi Graf returned to triumph at Wimbledon in 2018. Now she stands but a Roland Garros title away from a career Grand Slam.
Now 31, Kerber, again a Top-10 regular, is hoping those big-title moments come with more frequency over the next few years. Maybe that’s why she cut ties with Wim Fissette, and is now working with former world No. 5 Rainer Schuttler, the last German man to reach a Grand Slam final (2003 Australian Open).
Her run to the final in Indian Wells has been vintage Kerber: tireless runner pivoting from defense to offense with one swing of the racquet. The lefthander smacked 29 winners and just 12 unforced errors to ease past Yulia Putinseva 6-0, 6-2; broke serve seven times to outlast qualifier Natalia Vikhlyantseva in three sets, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3; roared back from a 4-1 third-set deficit to oust 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka; and outpunched Belinda Bencic in the semis, 6-4, 6-2.
“Kerber is an incredible fighter,” said newcomer Bianca Andreescu, Kerber’s first-time opponent in Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open final. “She redirects her shots. She can hit any shot at any time in any specific place whenever she wants. She has a pretty decent serve. She’s a good mover, great fighter.”
Andreescu, just 18 and the first-ever wildcard to reach the women’s final at the BNP Paribas Open, has some Grand Slam ambitions of her own. In reaching her second WTA final — her first at the Premier Mandatory level —she upset seeds Dominika Cibulkova, Qiang Wang, Garbine Muguruza and Elina Svitolina. The Canadian’s defeat of the Spaniard Muguruza, a two-time Slam champ, was particular noteworthy: a 6-0, 6-1 whitewash.
The youngest Indian Wells finalist since Kim Clijsters in 2001, Andreescu now owns five career Top-20 wins.
The Ontarian has won over fans in short order with her on-court versatility and ahead-of-her-years confidence. She meditates daily, wears a coiled hair-tie around her right bicep, and says she can overcome her emotions with a few measured breaths. She’s also just as likely to offer up a moonball or well-timed drop shot as she is to out-punch her opponent from the baseline, as she showed against the 6th-ranked Svitolina in the semis.
“She’s an all-around player,” observed the Ukrainian. “Today, she took her chances. It’s a good sign that she’s playing great tennis. She definitely can be the top of women’s tennis and be one of the top players.”
“She’s really played a great tournament so far,” said Kerber, who is appearing in the first Premier Mandatory final of her career. “She beat tough opponents. She has nothing to lose. She’ll enjoy the final. I will also go out there and try to play like I played in the last matches. I know it will be tough challenge. She’s playing really hard and going for it. She’s the one who is really trying to taking the match into her hands. I know I have to play my best tennis, especially in the important moments.”
It’s said that there’s no substitute for experience. Kerber certainly has the edge there. That might just lead the German to her next over-the-rainbow moment, chasing that ever-elusive pot of gold. Unless Andreescu gets there first.