God, they say, is in the details. Angelique Kerber discovered on Saturday that if you carried your conviction to court and kept the faith in yourself, it is possible to scale a new peak, even if it meant getting past a mountain called Serena Williams. Kerber stuck to her game plan with a monk like focus to overcome Serena and earn the Australian Open title.
Serena is no stranger to formidable German opponents. She was all of 17 when she inflicted a three set defeat on Steffi Graf for the Indian Wells title nearly seventeen summers ago. It was in the lead up to the French Open in 1999, which was to be the 22nd and last grand slam title of the legendary German’s immense career. On Saturday, Williams was at the Australian Open, clearly focused on emulating the great German’s collection of grand slam trophies.
But there was a supposedly innocuous German across the net defending Steffi’s fortress of greatness. At 28, she had finally reached the climax of a grand slam tournament for the first time in her 14 years on the tour. And she was facing one of the greatest competitors women’s tennis has ever known, a woman who had lost just four of 25 major finals.
Naturally, the lead up to the final was all about Serena. The Sun in Australia was believed to have printed their back page with Serena standing on seventh heaven. The great American was brutally efficient on her way to the final – blanking Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinal, losing a grand total of just 26 games. On the other hand, Kerber was down match point to Japan's Misaki Doi in the very first round before battling her way back to emerge an unlikely finalist.
“I have nothing to lose against Serena,” said the elated German, as she prepared for the biggest match of her life. “I will go out there, try to enjoy my first final, and try to beat Serena, of course, as well. I must play my best tennis to have a chance.”
“I think the final comes at the right moment,” added Kerber, who spent a few days hitting with Steffi at the Agassi’s Las Vegas home in March last year. Working briefly with her idol and soaking in Steffi’s thoughts have obviously filled Kerber with a new air of positivity. “I think I’m ready for it because I have a lot of experience the last few years. I beat top players. I am a top player now.”
But this was a grand slam final and Kerber, despite all her confidence, may have walked out feeling very nervous against the one of the most formidable opponents tennis may have ever known. Surprisingly, like a woman who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, Serena was all over the place in the first set.
The world No.1 made 23 unforced errors in an edgy first set, helping Kerber settle down inside the imposing environs of the Rod Laver Arena. The German kept her end of the net steady, making just three errors, as she took advantage of her opponent’s sloppy start.
Williams though is an intimidating opponent – her guttural screams, the intensity in her eyes and the power behind her shots have forced many an opponent into meek submission, from a position of advantage. Just ask Viktoria Azarenka.
When she gathered herself to take the second set, the momentum was firmly back in her corner. After being 12-23 in the first set, Serena had 16 winners to 5 unforced errors in the second set, a much-improved effort.
It felt for a moment that the bout may have ended, with Serena set to assert herself. After all, the 34 year old player had never lost the third set of a grand slam final (8-0) and won every final that she reached in Melbourne (6-0). Till Satruday, 30 January 2016, that is.
Kerber though, seemed to have acquired nerves of steel on her way to the final. She was threading the needle in the second game, passing Serena at will to strike first in the final set for a 2-0 lead. Serena summoned her willpower to reel Kerber back immediately to draw level at 2-2.
The fifth game of the final set was remarkable, offering a glimpse into the mental fortitude of the German. In a marathon 11 minute game, Kerber refused to blink, eventually rattling Serena into submission. It was an education for any young tennis player watching the game.
Kerber produced a couple of drop winners in the game, shots that required monumental calm and enormous courage especially against an opponent like Serena. The German walked a straight line from there, playing with a steady hand and stubborn mind to find herself serving for the biggest title of her career.
Needless to say there were clear hints of nerves, as she began to realise the enormity of the occasion. But Serena drove a volley long on Kerber’s first match point leaving the German screaming her lungs out even as she collapsed to her back in celebration.
Sport at the highest levels is an art form. It is always naïve to try and capture it in numbers. But some of the numbers are worth narrating in the context of this German tale.
In six previous matches, Serena played just 25 rallies that lasted over nine shots. Kerber dragged Serena into a bruising battle of patience by forcing her to play 22 of those in the final. Incredibly, Kerber won the skirmishes too – winning 60-52 on rallies that lasted less than 4 shots.
The American intimidates her opponents by surveying the net with ferocity. On Saturday, Serena won just 15 of 32 net approaches, damaging herself badly in the process. The world No.1 also made 46 unforced errors to just 13 from Kerber, a difference that proved fatal in the end.
The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup was just reward for the hard working German. She ran tirelessly this fortnight, clocking over 12 kilometers on her legs, making her opponents play the extra ball with an incessant consistency.
Saying that this win was all about being comporsed at the big stage, Kerber had this to say after the match: "I was trying to believe much more in myself. You know, when I won the first set, when I won against Azarenka, that shows me that I really am a good player and I can show it as well on the big courts."
"I was not playing very good last year on the big tournaments. This is the first big tournament of the year, and I won it, the first Grand Slam. It sounds crazy, but I can say I'm a Grand Slam champion now."
Kerber’s tenacity got the better of Serena, but one has to also wonder if the American is beginning to get very conscious of the magnitude of her Himalayan accomplishments.
But for now, let us just celebrate one of the biggest stories of an underdog triumph in recent times that gave us one of the best ladies' finals in a grand slam.