Kerber’s commitment to the sport was never in question, but skeptics were convinced that winning a Grand Slam singles championship was beyond her capabilities. Heading into the first major of 2016 here in the land “Down Under”, Kerber had posted a less than stellar record. In 32 appearances at ” Big Four” events, she had gone as far as the semifinals only twice, while never advancing to a title round contest. She was universally regarded as a formidable and resourceful competitor, and a player with a keen understanding of how to bring the best out of herself. Kerber was not to be taken lightly, but the heavyweights seemed always to surpass her.
But now her world has been altered irrevocably. In the final of the opening Grand Slam tournament of 2016, under the lights on Rod Laver Arena, with a near capacity audience cheering her every move, Kerber outperformed none other than six time Australian Open victor Serena Williams 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in a stirring showdown. Keep in mind that Williams had won 21 of 25 previous major finals across her sterling career, losing only to her sister Venus twice (2001 U.S. Open, 2008 Wimbledon), Maria Sharapova (2004 Wimbledon), and Sam Stosur (2011 U.S. Open). Never before in a three set, final round encounter at a major had Serena suffered a defeat. She has been one of the premier big match players in the history of women’s tennis, and one of the steeliest competitors ever to wield a racket.
And yet, here was Kerber in a first ever match of this kind, and her poise and perspicacity were fully on display from the outset. She had lost five of her six previous skirmishes with Williams. She was in uncharted territory. But Kerber clearly had a sensible and relatively simple gameplan, and the presence of mind to execute it. She was going to defend steadfastly, run down every big shot sent her way by the overpowering Williams, take Serena out of her comfort zone with sharp angles off both sides, and use the forehand down the line systematically and strategically to keep her adversary off balance. She was determined to make Serena work inordinately hard, to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of the 34-year-old American, and to play this tennis match on her own terms as much as possible.
Ultimately, Kerber did just that, and the statistics bear that out. There were 176 points played in this captivating contest, and Kerber made only 13 unforced errors. Williams was guilty of 46 unforced errors, often pressing as Kerber prolonged the rallies. In crucial ways, Kerber constantly gave Williams cause for concern, inviting her to miss, retrieving stupendously, making Serena play an extra ball over and over again, in one baseline exchange after another. Perhaps the finest defensive player in the world of women’s tennis upended the most widely revered offensive ball striker of them all. It was a fascinating contrast in styles, and an astonishing performance from Kerber under the circumstances. To be sure, Williams was not near peak efficiency, frequently missing shots from the backcourt that she normally owns. In turn, Serena’s serve was well below par. But Kerber must be commended for all she did to disrupt the rhythm of her renowned opponent and how she slowed down the tempo.
The match commenced predictably as Williams held at love without missing a first serve. Yet Kerber settled into the occasion swiftly from there. Despite a double fault for 15-30 in the second game—she would serve only two more the rest of the way—Kerber bounced back forcefully to 30-30, served an ace for 40-30 and took the next point to hold on for 1-1. She had found her bearings. With Serena missing three out of five first serves in the next game, Kerber got on the board with her first break, and then she promptly held at 30 for 3-1 with a bounce smash winner.
Williams was plainly apprehensive, drifting to 0-30 in the fifth game, in danger of falling two breaks behind. But she would hold on in a deuce game with an unstoppable first serve, and broke back for 3-3 with a forehand inside in return winner off a 129 kilometer second serve from Kerber. Back on serve, Williams seemed ready to impose herself and perhaps run out the set, but that was not the case at all. Serving in the seventh game, Williams double faulted to make it 15-15. At 30-30, she miss-hit a backhand wide off a high trajectory return, and then bungled a forehand swing volley long to lose her serve again.
Kerber had regained her authority and held at 15 for 5-3. Serving for the set two games later, Kerber remained calm and purposeful. She held at love to seal it 6-4, helped by a backhand volley mistake from Williams on the second point. Kerber had rolled her forehand pass crosscourt, coaxing that error with strategic acumen. She exploited the vulnerability of Williams at the net, especially on conventional rather than swing volleys. Kerber had gone up a set despite connecting with only 45% of her first serves. Williams had committed 23 of her total of 46 unforced errors in that one set alone. The disarray of her ground game and the thoughtful probing of Kerber were the primary reasons the German took that set.
In the second set, order was restored for the world No. 1. Serena’s ground game was enormously improved. She made only five unforced errors, raised her first serve numbers up to 64%, and returned with more precision and less inconsistency. In the fourth game of that set, Kerber served a pair of double faults, and Serena gained the break for 3-1. Williams held from 0-30 in the following game to move ahead 4-1. Serving at 4-2, 40-30, Williams came through with her best net play of the night, bending remarkably low for a backhand volley down the line winner. She served out the set at 5-3, holding comfortably at 15. Set to Williams, 6-3. She won 20 of 28 points on serve in that set, taking 78% of her first serve points and 60% on her second delivery. Everything was markedly better from Williams in the second set, including her court positioning; she was hugging the baseline, taking the ball earlier, and timing her shots almost impeccably.
But Kerber’s level of play had not really receded. She started the final set with renewed vigor, holding at 15 for 1-0 with a winning forehand down the line, then breaking Serena at love for 2-0, closing that game with a spectacular flourish, scrambling astoundingly before releasing a forehand passing shot down the line for a winner to make it 0-40. On the next point, she sent a forehand down the line again to get Williams off balance, and then went back behind her for a winning forehand down the same line.
Kerber had collected eight of nine points for a 2-0 final set lead, but three times in the next game Williams produced angled backhand returns from the ad court to draw errors on the running forehand from Kerber. Williams broke back, and then held at 15 for 2-2 with a 195 kilometer ace down the T, her biggest and best delivery of the match. She seemed reignited, climbing back on level terms. But Kerber struck back boldly once more. Serving at 2-2, 40-30, Kerber found an acute angle with her slice serve wide to the backhand, and Williams understandably missed the return. It was 3-2 for Kerber.
The next game was brilliantly played on both sides of the net, contested unwaveringly by each of the participants, leaving the crowd in a frenzy. The spirit and fortitude of the players was nothing short of astonishing. Williams was down 15-40 but kept pulling Kerber wide to the forehand before moving forward to connect for a forehand swing volley winner. An ace from Serena lifted her back to deuce. Kerber earned another break point with a forehand passing shot winner off a weak volley from Serena, but Williams saved that one with a scintillating backhand winner down the line.
This was turning into, ” Anything you can do, I can do better.” Drama was flooding through Rod Laver Arena. An ace at 192 kilometers down the T brought Serena to game point, but Kerber responded with a sparkling backhand drop shot winner down the line. Williams double faulted but then Kerber netted a backhand. Deuce again.Williams came forward to lure Kerber into a backhand passing shot error and that gave the American another game point, but once more Kerber was gutsy, audacious and imaginative. She sent another backhand drop shot down the line for a winner.
Perhaps shaken now by Kerber’s boldness in the trenches, Williams double faulted into the net and then was off target with a forehand down the line. After five deuces, on her fifth break point, after Serena had a couple of game points, Kerber had broken through for 4-2 with a magnificent stand. She held at love for 5-2, buoyed by an ace out wide in the deuce court for 40-0. Now Serena was serving to stay in the match. She opened the eighth game with a double fault long, but played the rest of that game courageously, holding at 30 after the score was precariously locked at 30-30. An immense roar greeted Kerber at 5-3 as she stood on the verge of a gigantic breakthrough, only four points away from a first major crown.
But Williams was in her element, refusing to surrender, determined to find her way to victory. A good return gave Serena 0-15 as Kerber erred off the backhand. Another very deep return from Williams was too much for Kerber to handle: 0-30. Kerber took the next point but Williams surged to 15-40 with a forehand crosscourt winner. Although Kerber got to 30-40, Williams came through with another return of extraordinary depth. Kerber tried to take it on the rise but could not control her forehand. Williams had broken back for 4-5, but was serving for the second time to stay in the match.
A clever backhand down the line from Kerber drew a backhand down the line mistake from Serena: 0-15. Then Kerber gave Williams no pace, sending a backhand crosscourt. Williams netted a forehand for 0-30. Yet here she elevated her game admirably in the crunch again. An ace down the T at 194 kilometers made it 15-30. One sharply angled backhand crosscourt set up another for a winner: 30-30. A superb backhand down the line winner lifted Serena to 40-30, only one point away from winning three games in a row and getting back on level ground to 5-5.
If the American icon had managed to do that, if she had forced Kerber to serve again at 5-5, if she had put herself in that position, Williams would almost certainly have prevailed. But Kerber was obstinate, tenacious, willful and unwavering. She got back to deuce with a timely forehand down the line return that forced Williams into a netted forehand on the run. Two points away from triumphing again, Kerber’s tactical acuity surfaced once more. She threw a barrage of forehand crosscourt shots at the Williams backhand but then changed direction and went down the line. The American netted an arduous forehand on the run.
And so it was match point for Kerber. Williams got the short ball she wanted and approached the net, but Kerber knew that with Williams so vulnerable in the forecourt a perfect passing shot was unnecessary. She directed a two-hander crosscourt, and Williams punched a forehand volley long. After two hours and eight minutes of enticing theater featuring some very inspiring and entertaining tennis, Kerber had become only the fourth player ever to stop Serena Williams in a Grand Slam tournament final.
Moreover, Angelique Kerber established herself as the first German since Steffi Graf at Roland Garros in 1999 to win a major singles championship. Kerber had found herself match point down in the opening round of this tournament against Japan’s Misaki Doi, escaping 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-3 against the world No. 64. The No. 7 seed captured her next five matches in straight sets, including a quarterfinal triumph over two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
This enormously appealing player is now the No. 2 ranked player in the world. She has handed Serena Williams her first setback in seven Australian Open finals. Kerber has silenced the skeptics, raised her self awareness to another level, and landed in the country of major champions. No one can say she has not earned that distinction.