January 30, 2016
Has there ever been a shock quite like it? Angelique Kerber may have been seeded but she was also given no hope against arguably the greatest there has ever been.
Yet it was the German who stunned tennis and humbled Serena Williams with a scarcely-believable performance and a fully-merited 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory in the Australian Open final.
‘Angie, congratulations, you really deserved it and I hope you enjoy this moment,’ Serena said generously.
Kerber replied: ‘Serena, you are an inspiration. This is the best two weeks of my life. My career. I had goosebumps while I was playing.’
We had goosebumps while we were watching too! What a final! Entertaining in the extreme, with as many twists and turns as the most carefully-crafted thriller, and that deliciously surprising denouement.
A contest to confound the experts, who, it’s worth repeating, had written off Kerber with predictions of one-sided embarrassment and perhaps even the humiliation of bagels.
Instead we were treated to one of the best Grand Slam finals in living memory, a match to prove yet again that Serena is only human, that she can falter on any given day, that women’s tennis is not so predictable after all, and Williams will not crush everyone she faces into easy submission.
Somehow Williams can’t make the final ascent to share a summit with the great Steffi Graf – another German – who won 22 Slams to Williams’ current tally of 21.
Despite losing the first game to love, it was Kerber who came up with the first break to leave the Melbourne crowd dreaming of one of the great upsets in Grand Slam final history.
A cross-court winner soon had Williams worrying – and before she knew it, she was 15-40 behind on her own serve. Despite all the experience that had seen her triumph in those 21 Slams, Serena looked nervous as she went long under pressure in the next rally and knew she was in a match.
Kerber consolidated to go 3-1 ahead and was even enjoying a new 0-30 on the Serena serve. That was when Williams sprang to life, pumped herself up and yelled ‘come on!’ each time she won a point.
Keeping the breaks-count down to a single lapse for now, Williams set about trying to expose the relatively weak Kerber second serve, as we suspected she would. There was a huge triumphant scream from Serena as she levelled the match at 3-3.
Now the early nerves from the champion seemed to have evaporated in the Australian summer air. And the audacious start from the German appeared to have given way to what looked more like a battle for survival…at least that’s the way it looked for a few seconds.
Williams suddenly looked pedestrian again, Kerber refusing to bow to the inevitable, seeking out fresh doubts in Serena’s mind. A wayward drive-volley from the American showed that the contest was still very much alive, as Angelique broke again.
You wondered whether the pressure of trying to equal Graf’s Grand Slam record was getting to Williams, just as the Calendar Slam expectation had left her dream in tatters at Flushing Meadows.
Kerber, in contrast, had said she was going to enter the arena with a “nothing-to-lose” mentality – and that’s exactly what she was bringing to the party as she consolidated to go 5-3 ahead.
Williams hit back, trying to intimidate Kerber with shrieks after almost every shot, as she won the next game with comparative ease. The German looked quizically at the umpire, almost hoping she might intervene to have the volume turned down.
But Kerber knew that what mattered so much more than the sound-effects was the quality she could conjure from her racquet in the vital service game. And as it turned out, it wasn’t so much the strength of her serve as her determined defensive game that carried Kerber through to take a remarkable first-set lead. Serena’s heavy feet and uncertain work at the net had begun to seal her fate.
Having lost the first set 4-6, we waited for the real Serena to reappear. She held in the opening game of the second but couldn’t break initially, as Kerber sent down an unlikely second ace. But Kerber’s serving suddenly fell apart. Had she imagined the finishing line coming into view?
Two double faults helped to leave the underdog 1-3 down in the second. And Williams on the comeback trail is always a fearsome sight. Kerber tried to break once more but saw a promising 0-30 position overrun by a rampant Serena, who bludgeoned her way to 4-1 in the blink of an eye.
It wasn’t a balance of power that Kerber could easily reverse, despite playing one of her best games to bring the scores back to 3-5, and Williams took the second set by a comfortable 6-3.
What could the number seven seed summon from deep inside, to turn the tide back in her favour in the decider? It was a big ask, now that Serena had such a firm foothold in the contest.
Yet Kerber began by protecting her second serve from too much punishment by using a good variety of angles. She held in the all-important opening game of the third set and promptly hit even greater heights.
Her deadly backhand sent the title outsider back into dreamland as a couple of timely winners helped her to break Williams again. Incredibly, Kerber had won eight out of nine points in the first two games of the deciding set, and held a promising 2-0 lead.
Then, just when it seemed she had the great shock within her grasp, Kerber exposed her second serve to Serena’s power. Before we knew it, Williams had the third set back on serve and the Melbourne crowd simply couldn’t tell which way the final was going to go.
But there was something about Kerber’s spirit that simply refused to be diminished by any setback. She edged ahead once more – and this time it was Serena who felt the pressure as she served for parity.
Williams double-faulted twice in the key sixth game and even though she saved four break points, she couldn’t save the fifth. By sustaining the pressure and ignoring the legendary status of her opponent, Kerber took herself to within two points of the title at 4-2.
Surely she had to choke? Surely the immensity of the potential achievement would get to her in the end, as she served once more? Not a bit of it. Kerber, serving like a dream, won the next game to love – and now she was only four points from glory.
She couldn’t find them in Serena’s next service game, so it was down to Angelique to finish the set as she had started it. Again she failed. That famous Williams warrior spirit refused to be defeated just yet, and she pounced on any tentative percentage shot Kerber tried to play. This was no place for faint hearts. Serena broke back conviningly and only had to hold serve for the fresh relief of parity.
Kerber wouldn’t let her. In one of the best games of the match, the pair slugged it out until one woman crumbled. Astonishingly, it was Serena who couldn’t find the accuracy to match her power under the fiercest pressure.
There were no more chances for the old champion. The new champion had clinched it – and shocked the world.
Kerber, playing without the shackles of greatness, has nevertheless found lasting fame. For this final is unlikely ever to be forgotten.
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