WTA Insider David Kane | WTA Elite Trophy Ambassador Stefanie Graf weighs in on the key to Angelique Kerber's rise to World No.1, why you can't count out Serena Williams, and her week in Zhuhai.
WTA Staff

ZHUHAI, China - Huanjin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai Ambassador and 22-time Grand Slam champion Stefanie Graf had a front-row seat to the rise of World No.1 Angelique Kerber.

"She would take little breaks in the year and come to Las Vegas to train and prepare herself," she told WTA Insider during a media Q&A on Sunday. "I had a chance to watch and help a little but, but she's the one doing the hard work. She's the one showing that determination and commitment.

"I felt she always had the talent and the strengths; she's been working hard. She just needed that one win to get her mindset changed to where she could start believing in herself. She was really able to do that in the last year or two, where she started realizing that she can beat top players. That belief really changed her game around; she's been playing with a lot more confidence, and you can see that she's a different player on the court. With each victory, it seemed like she got stronger and more comfortable with herself on the court."

With Kerber leading a strong German contingent - one that already includes Julia Goerges, Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki, and Laura Siegemund - Graf is hopeful for a surge in national interest in the sport she once dominated.

"I think we've had such strong talent in Germany over the past few years; we had a lot of great players pushing each other. For her to push through has been really important for German tennis because where we've seen a lot of growth here, we've seen fewer tournaments in Germany where we used to be really strong.

Stefanie Graf

"For her to have that success, and a lot of the other players being strong behind her, that should hopefully strengthen tennis in Germany and Europe again."

Graf wouldn't count out former No.1 Serena Williams, who matched her Grand Slam total this year at Wimbledon, as Kerber's biggest challenge in 2017.

"With Serena, she's definitely had a little bit of a harder year; she wasn't able to play as many tournaments as she might have wished to be ready for the Grand Slams. But she's too incredible of a player to be underestimated in the coming year.

"Consistency is what we're all striving for on the court; it's difficult with different surfaces, different time zones and different climates. It's a long year in tennis."

Serving as WTA Elite Trophy Ambassador at the end of the season proved to be an easy decision for Graf; the German had never before traveled to China and has thoroughly enjoyed taking in the sights throughout the region. She arrived late Friday night and was greeted by a throng of fans at her hotel, and has since participated in several clinics with junior players, a trip to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge with Caroline Garcia, and the coin toss for the final between Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina.

Stefanie Graf

"The desire has always been there to come visit China. I can say I've traveled the world, but there's a few places I haven't been but have the wish to go. I love to travel and experience different cultures. Tennis is such a great and growing sport in China; to be part of it, and hopefully help just a little bit bring the sport to our young talents, it's a great opportunity.

"I do enjoy a coastline, and even having the possibility to drive around and get the chance yesterday to be playing a little bit of tennis on the longest bridge in the world. That was an incredible sight. The city has a lot of beautiful parts I've seen just by driving along, but also looking at little mountains and hills. We've enjoyed taking walks in the morning, jogging along the water and seeing people on early strolls of their own.

"You have so many possibilities here, so it seems like a vibrant city everyone can enjoy."

Check out more quick hits from Graf on what she makes of the tournament, how tennis can continue growing in China, and even what she makes of new ATP World No.1 Andy Murray.

On the Zhuhai venue...

I'm looking at an incredible facility right now. The center court couldn't be nicer; I got a chance to play a little bit on the outside courts yesterday, and they play beautifully. In terms of the environment - from locker rooms, to physiotherapy to massages - I thought the organization has been exceptional. I feel there's a strong passion for tennis here, and you can feel a high level excitement from everyone on the grounds. Everyone has been so accommodating and able to help whenever you have questions. There's a really cute conversation card in the tournament transportation vehicle, where if a driver doesn't completely understand you, there's a list of different questions you could have in different languages. It's all extremely well thought through. I'm sure all the other players will agree that the organization has been top notch.

On the city's plan to further integrate tennis into the Zhuhai landscape...

I just learned quite a bit last night and this afternoon, sitting down with some of the CTA members, as well as the mayor and vice-mayor. Just from those discussions, it seems that there's a lot of vision already in hand, where they're already in the second and third stages of development. They're talking about developing a tennis academy as well as increasing the amount of tennis played in schools. It seems that there's a lot of planning going on. With the interest and passion that I've seen around this tournament, I believe that there's going to be fast growth.

It seems that everyone is very enthusiastic about it. I think from what I hear, it's still a very new sport, because for long periods, China couldn't watch a lot of tennis on TV. The enthusiasm is there, and just seeing the growing tournaments over the last few years has been great. During my career, we didn't have a big women's tournament here, so the growth in this sector is clearly immense. So the industry and fans are here; I believe that from what has already been done that we all need to be on the lookout for even more growth.

Stefanie Graf

On Andy Murray ascending to World No.1...

I didn't even know until you told me just now! It happened last night, so I hadn't caught the news. It's the result of some incredible tennis that he's been playing over the last few years, and so it's well deserved. When you look at men's tennis, the level has been so phenomenal for such a long time; it's still a tight race with Djokovic, players like Federer and Nadal. It's fascinating to watch men's tennis with how close it is. How long will he be able to hold on? I don't know, but I'll be looking forward to seeing what next year will bring.

On the importance of consistency throughout a long season...

Consistency is what you strive for. It's pretty difficult to achieve in the world of tennis. There are very few sports played all year long. In my career, it was an 11-11.5-month long season; now it's gotten a little short, more like 10 months. But it's really difficult to hold the highest level throughout the year. Ideally, you try to pace yourself through it, meaning you pick and choose your tournaments, and take time in between. With Angie, she did a fantastic job peaking at the big tournaments this year, with strong showings at the Grand Slam tournaments.

On the next generation of players...

I think it's important for everyone to find their individual way, their presence, and their style. I think in terms of my style of play, it's not around so much any more with one-handed backhand slice, and keeping the ball low. That's a very unusual thing; I think tennis has changed quite a bit through the last few generations. But the good thing is that everyone finds their own way to become who they are.

All photos courtesy of WTA Elite Trophy.