The going only gets tougher for Angelique Kerber | More sports | DW | 17.01.2017
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The going only gets tougher for Angelique Kerber

In 2016, the world's top women's tennis player frequently used the word "amazing" to describe how she felt. However, 2017 promises to be a year when the word "exhausting" more frequently comes into play.

Bremen native Angelique Kerber, 28, has faced a lot of reporters' questions over the past few months. Recently, at the gala for the German athletes of the year awards, she was even asked to give her thoughts on politics. Clad in an elegant dress, the tennis player spoke of the special moment when she had the honor of meeting outgoing US President Barack Obama. When asked her opinion on Obama's successor, she quipped: "Do I really have to answer that?"

Nothing to lose

No, she didn't have to. However, this anecdote from the gala in the southwestern German town of Baden-Baden demonstrates the expectations placed upon Angelique Kerber. As much as she rejects any comparison to Steffi Graf, Angelique Kerber is now in the spotlight. She currently sets the standard in women's tennis.

Her first-round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne drove this home in a bittersweet manner. Lesia Tsurenko was certainly not an opponent who would make Kerber quiver in her boots. However, she displayed what all opponents of the No. 1-ranked player are bound to display over the coming year: fighting spirit and the fact that they have nothing to lose.

Kerber won in three sets, and in doing so, she overcame her most dangerous opponent: herself.  Like many outstanding tennis players before her, Angelique Kerber too will have to battle against herself. Once you get to the top, the challenge is to maintain that hunger for success and to keep working on the little things - not to let up. In 2017, this will be her biggest challenge.

Staying on top is even harder than getting there

Folllowing her quick rise up the rankings, which began with her triumph at last year's Australian Open, continued through her silver medal-performance in Rio and was made complete by her glorious success at the US Open, Kerber now has the difficult task of trying to stay on top. She will come up against opponents who are more or less her equals, such as Serena Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska or Simona Halep, less frequently and only in the later rounds of tournaments.

Kerber currently has 8,875 points in the World Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Serena Williams follows some distance behind her in second place with 7,080 points. Every match that Angelique Kerber loses this year may cost her valuable points. This year will be her toughest yet.

The question is: Is she up to it? Or will she prove the not always diplomatic but always knowledgeable John McEnroe right? He recently told German publication "Sport-Bild" that he didn't think Kerber would be able to stay on top for very long.

Key decisions

Kerber, who lives with her grandparents in the Polish town of Puszczykowo, has done everything she could to lay the foundation for a successful 2017. She celebrated her victories, but didn't overdo it. She went on vacation, but not for very long. Then she returned to training to get ready for the new season, not just with her coach Torben Beltz, but also in the gym. She threw herself into a physical training regime that would have been a challenge for many of her male counterparts.

She also made a couple of important decisions. First Kerber hired Aljoscha Thron, a medical doctor who had a tennis background, as her new manager. She then decided against playing for Germany's Fed Cup team in their first round matchup against the United States at the start of February - and perhaps more importantly - against the long and exhausting trip to Hawaii that this would have entailed.

Angelique Kerber Australian Open 2017 (picture alliance/CITYPRESS24)

Team Angie: Physiotherapist Cathrin Junker, Kerber, Barbara Rittner, Torben Beltz

When Kerber made this announcement, ahead of her first-round match in Melbourne, she was flanked by Germany's Fed Cup coach, Barbara Rittner.

Rittner was an important factor in Kerber's difficult climb to the top and the coach has not forgotten that just days after winning her first Grand Slam title a year ago, Kerber traveled half way around the world to join her teammates. However, her exhaustion was evident as she lost her singles match to Switzerland's Belinda Bencic.

Traveling to Hawaii at the start of February would amount to poison for Kerber's conditioning, and nobody knows this better than she does. Such a trip is the last thing she needs if she wants to remain number one.

The return of Serena

Another threat to Kerber's reign is the return of the player who entered last year's Australian Open as No. 1. Pundits wondered how fit and how hungry Serena Williams would be having worked her way back from injury and having just recently announced her engagement. The American began to answer those questions with her 6-4 6-3 win over Bencic on Tuesday.

Looking further down the line, what can we expect from Maria Sharapova?  The Russian has said she will return to action immediately after her doping ban has expired - in Stuttgart, in April. 

Kerber has a number of rivals warming up and thinks the test she was given by Tsurenko was beneficial.

"It wasn't such a bad thing that I had a match like that," Kerber said after needing three sets to win her first contest in Melbourne. She said that at one point during Monday's match, she did think back to the first round a year ago, when she had to withstand a matchpoint.

Over the next several months she is bound to be reminded of a few other such incidents from last season. The question is: Will this be a help or a hindrance?

The memories are omnipresent anyway. To get out to the court at Rod Laver Arena, the players walk along a freshly painted hallway, in which the portraits of all previous champions hang on one of the walls - including one of Angelique Kerber.

She knows there is more room on that wall for another portrait.

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