Kerber on her time with Steffi Graf: “She got rid of my doubts.”

Original source:  Welt am Sonntag, page 28, by Lutz Woeckener

Nutella or apple sauce? When it comes to toppings Angelique Kerber isn’t quite sure yet. Like in past years she will decide on short notice. Before her first round match against Timea Babos from Hungary on Monday Kerber will vist a small crêpes stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

The 27 year old isn’t immune to the rituals that are so common in the world of tennis. But aside from a warm crêpe this visit to the French capital might differ from the usual for Kerber. After the changes in recent months a lot seems possible on the red clay of Roland Garros that she used to dislike so much. Some experts even picked her as a dark horse for the title. Nutella or apple sauce – that’s a question Kerber has to answer for the next step of her career.

For years the lefty was considered very reliable on tour – both in a good way and in a bad way. Kerber rarely suffered surprising losses, was the rock in the sea of almost tradional inconsistency that is German women’s tennis. But she also regularly missed out on the big wins against the very best. The Bremen-born Kerber stood among the 10 players for 32 straight months since the 21st of May 2012. But she also only won one tournament in this time. Just 2014 she lost all 4 finals she took part in. A tennis life between the 3rd round and the semifinals, more apple sauce than Nutella. “Maybe I should have changed something earlier,” she says today, looking back, but it took quite a few painful losses to see the need for new stimuli.

The year started in classic Kerber fashion. Quarterfinals in Brisbane, semifinals in Sydney. The shock came at the Australian Open: A loss in the first round, for the first time in four years. The downward spiral started spinning: Early loss in Antwerp, Round of 16 in Dubai, first round loss in Doha. Nothing worked. She felt lethargic, dropped out of the Top 10, doubted and quareled with herself. “Antwerp was the breaking point,” Kerber says. “I couldn’t find a way out and started asking myself: Why am I even doing this? I didn’t feel any joy or motivation. I had to change something.”

The 27 year old retreated to Puszczykowo to her Polish-born family and started thinking about the future. All the years on the tennis courts of this world, all the deprivations, missed family events, being single. Was all that still worth it?

5 days before she left for a 5-week trip to the United States she finally brought herself to make decisions. She split from her coach Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh and wrote two emails. The first one went to Darren Cahill, head coach at the Adidas Tennis Base in Nevade. The second one went to Steffi Graf, her big idol. “I felt like it would go wrong in the US, too, if I didn’t change anything” reasons Kerber. Cahill was asked to make courts available for her in his tennis camp before the tournament in Indian Wells. And she asked Graf to chaperon her training in Las Vegas. “She had often told me that I’m always welcome at hers. That she would help me.” Kerber tells.

The 45 year-old tennis icon came through on her promise. Graf, who lives 10 minutes away with her husband Andre Agassi and their two children, unpacked her racket and didn’t miss a single practice session. For three days she worked with Kerber, observed, analyzed, discussed. “Even if the results weren’t there initially I felt that it gave me so incredibly much,” says Kerber, who lost in the second round of Indian Wells and afterwards returned to Las Vegas to work for five more days with Graf.

When Kerber talks about “Die Steffi” her blue eyes sparkle and one can hear the girl from Kiel talking from inside her. “Steffi herself played with me,” she says with pride. And: “Steffi is still incredibly good, simply superhuman.  Backhand slice, nothing changed, and her footwork is just awesome.”

That Graf influenced Kerber’s game became visible after their time together. After Miami Kerber unexpectedly won on the green clay in Charleston, immediately after that on the red clay of Stuttgart. Both finals were close matches, decided late in the third set. In Stuttgart she beat top players like Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. An extra helping of Nutella, not the apple sauce of days gone by.

The first two tournament wins on the WTA tour took ten years, the numbers four and five just took 14 days. So what exactly happened there during the eight days in the desert?

Kerber doesn’t like the question. “I learned a lot on the trip, and it simply is something very special when Steffi is standing next to you and telling you things.” Kerber describes, but dodges a precise answer. It seems almost mysterious, as if Kerber and Graf had made a pact in the desert. Nevertheless it becomes clear during our interview that during those days Graf had the biggest impact in Kerber’s head: Validation, Confidence. And the result is that Kerber on court is more patient, but in the crucial stages also more determined, more dominant. “She got rid of my doubts.”

Kerber is convinced that without Graf she wouldn’t have won these two tournaments. A role is certainly also played by her new coach, who actually is an old coach: Torben Beltz. “We’ve known each other for 15 years,” Kerber says and laughs. “When I found myself without a coach at the end of February I was a bit lost and called Torben.”

Off the court the two trust each other. They share private matters, meet for a juice or a wine at the hotel bar, play cards. “Preferrably Skip-Bo,” Kerber says. Or Backgammon. “They are rituals that help me.”

Just like the crêpes at the Eiffel Tower, whether with Nutella or with apple sauce. Unlike at the snack bar the tendency on court is unequivocal. “I have proven in the last few weeks what I can do on clay. Other players by now have a bit more respect for me. But I don’t put the pressure on myself. From the outside, I don’t care who calls me a favorite. I’m going [to Paris] with a good feeling and many good matches on clay and my best preparation for Paris yet.”

So it’s quite possible that she will be in the tournament long enough for a second crêpes, apple sauce for that start, Nutella for the second week.
~

Translated by Katja

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