By Ben Rothenberg / New York Times News Service
ROME—Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, the top-ranked men’s and women’s professional tennis players, have charted largely parallel wayward courses in 2017, struggling to summon the form that earned them their top rankings last year.
Neither will head to the French Open, which begins on May 28, with momentum of any sort, after each lost in their first match at the Italian Open this week. Murray lost in straight sets to 29th-ranked Fabio Fognini on Monday night in front of a raucous Italian home crowd. Kerber followed Murray out of the tournament on Tuesday, losing the final 10 games against a qualifier, 68th-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, in a 6-4, 6-0 defeat in only 56 minutes.
“I just feel like I’m not playing well,” Murray said on Monday.
“I’m not playing my best tennis right now,” Kerber said on Tuesday.
Their arcs have more similarities than differences. Murray, 30, and Kerber, 29, assumed the top spot in the rankings for the first time last year. Murray won Wimbledon and reached the finals of the Australian Open and the French Open. Kerber won the Australian Open and the US Open, and reached the Wimbledon final.
Both may have not adequately rested after grueling campaigns. Murray ended the year by winning five tournaments in seven weeks; Kerber said she did not allow herself enough time “being in the moment” and resetting.
As top seeds at a Grand Slam event for the first time, both lost in the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open, falling on the same day in January.
Murray’s worst loss came at Indian Wells, California, in March, when he lost in straight sets to a qualifier, 129th-ranked Vasek Pospisil. Tuesday’s loss to Kontaveit represented the worst loss of Kerber’s year, though a loss last week to No. 60 Eugenie Bouchard added injury to insult, as she was forced to retire with a hamstring injury while trailing, 6-3, 5-0.
Quality wins have been few and far between: Kerber is 0-7 against top-20 opponents, and Murray is only 3-2 because he has often lost before facing one. Their struggles have grown worse on clay, the weakest surface for both; Fognini exploited this especially well in his win over Murray, with frequent drop-shot winners.
After his loss to Fognini, Murray grew frequently frustrated by questions he has been asked many times recently, including queries about Maria Sharapova’s return—”It’s killing me, I’ve got no interest in discussing it anymore, I’m having struggles of my own”—and whether the No. 1 ranking feels like a burden.
“It really doesn’t to me,” he said. “I’m not lying. That’s just how—that is how I feel. I’m just not playing well, and I don’t think it’s to do with my ranking. I mean, the last couple of weeks, they have been tough and I haven’t played well.
“I think sort of that Indian Wells and maybe like Monte Carlo, you know, the injury and stuff was more understandable,” he said, citing an elbow injury that forced him to withdraw from a tournament in Miami. “But the last few weeks, there is no reason for it from my end.
Kerber, who has spent less time as a star attraction than Murray, conceded that her No. 1 ranking had brought new challenges. “It’s not the best time now,” she said, “but you have always up and downs, and this is a challenge to come back—maybe stronger.”
Kerber said she hoped a turnaround in form, and in belief, might be just around the corner: “I need one good match, maybe, to get also my confidence back and then to see that it works.”
In a mixed blessing of sorts, neither Murray nor Kerber is likely to lose the No. 1 ranking anytime soon. Murray has a 3,515-point lead over Novak Djokovic, the No. 2 men’s player, who like Murray has struggled, and he has a title to defend at the French Open.
Among women, second-ranked Serena Williams is on maternity leave and will continue to fall in the rankings, and third-ranked Karolina Pliskova is at her least comfortable on clay courts. No. 4 Simona Halep has a chance to make up the 1,830-point gap between her and Kerber with deep runs in Rome and in Paris, but she has often underachieved at Grand Slam events.