MELBOURNE—It was elemental and profound.
Shock – pure shock – gripped us.
The moment – well, it was almost unthinkable.
Sages and fans alike were almost certain the Aussie Open final would be a one-sided blowout. Conventional wisdom whispered, “Let’s just hope this final will be competitive.”
Maybe it will last 90 minutes or so. Maybe the wannabe, Angelique Kerber, won’t simply be happy just to be in her first Slam final. Simply put, if the German defeated the most fabulous woman’s athlete in the world, it would be monumental. The foundation of the game would shake.
After all, at the start of the tournament the 28-year-old Kerber was the only top 10 player who hadn’t reached a Slam final. She was a match point down in the first round. But that was two long weeks ago.
Now for the second Slam in a row, a veteran, diminutive Euro lefty took down Serena. At the US Open it was the crafty Roberta Vinci who sliced and diced her way to victory in the semis. Here Kerber prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
Was it because Angie was battling to preserve the record of her idol and fellow German? After all, Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 Open-era Slam wins was at stake.
Was it because Williams felt the vise-grip of the moment? Remember, when Serena was seeking her 18th Slam – to tie the legendary Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert – she faltered badly.
At the US Open, clearly the weight of history – winning the calendar Grand Slam and tying Steffi’s record – clamped down on her.
But here in Melbourne, Serena was rested and renewed. Life was good. The glare of the New York media and a humbling loss were in her rearview mirror. Serena had rolled to the final without losing a set. She brushed aside top 5 players Maria Sharapova and Aga Radwanska, losing just 9 games.
Now she would only have to beat Kerber, whom she’d stopped in six of their seven meetings.
The No. 6 seed didn’t sound confident. Maybe Serena, she joked, “will have to shake a little bit. ” But Kerber’s play of late has been no joke. Leaner and faster then ever, she’d been flashing her swift, lethal athleticism. Never mind that last year she lost in the first round in Melbourne and didn’t get beyond the third round of a single Slam. This season she already reached the Brisbane final and, here in Melbourne, she dismissed Vika Azarenka, a popular long-shot.
Today she was tough and not at all overwhelmed by the moment. She promptly made sense of the inventive theory that she was the WTA’s answer to Rafa Nadal. Fleet, low to the ground with a nasty, almost unreadable forehand, Kerber could grind. She proved she’s far from a ho-hum counterpuncher. She can turn defense into offense, find sharp angles, and is a fierce fighter who often finds herself in three-set battles.
Today she knew she had to start fast and stay close. She raced to a 3-1 first set lead.
Later, in the media center, Serena said, “Every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life. As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not.”
Going into the final, Serena had averaged just 16 unforced errors per match. In the first set alone she had 23. She rushed the simplest of sitters. Forehands flew long, backhands went wide, volleys found the net. Serena had an imposing 21-4 record in Slam finals. Why did she save her worst performance of the tourney for today?
Go figure – it was Kerber – confident and unblinking, serving well and defending like a demon – who was the aggressor. Williams’ errors mounted. Her serve was modest. Her volleys were a hazard. She was passed regularly. Hands on hips, frustrated to the max, Serena winced. She and the world alike asked, “What’s wrong?”
“She’s like a petulant child insisting ‘I want that chocolate,'” suggested broadcaster Craig Gabriel.
Serena, 34, was broken twice and lost the first set 6-4. Predictably, she battled back. She’d won eight straight Grand Slam matches after losing the opening set. At last she unleashed the brilliant power of the fiercest player in the women’s game. We saw the will of a warrior as she began to move more adeptly, upgraded her serve, and, most importantly, cut way down on her errors, taking full advantage of one loose Kerber game when the German twice double-faulted. The blip opened the door and Serena marched to a 6-3 second-set win.
The Australian Open would now come down to a single set: a battle of hungry wills, a test of steely nerves. Tensions soared. We saw athletics at its compelling best. The match we had feared would be a blowout morphed into an instant classic of sorts, bringing to mind Venus Williams’ 2005 Wimbledon triumph over Lindsay Davenport. And it all came down to the pivotal sixth game, when the two lifted their level. A glorious and lengthy tug of war ensued. Serena, the diva and winner of eight of the last 16 Grand Slams, seemed likely to prevail.
But Kerber knew she had nothing to lose. Her mind was clear. She had survived that first-round match point. This was gravy. She recalled she had came from 5-2 down in the second set against Azarenka. Her long-ago win over Williams in Cincinnati in 2012 gave her confidence. She was swinging free, moving with ease and relishing the combat. But she failed to convert on one break point after another. The game was going on for far too long. She had to do something outside the box.
So she hit the most delicate of drop shots – an inspired winner.
Then, she reasoned, “If I could do that once, I can do it again.”
“That’s how I am. I’m a little bit crazy and I have confidence when I hit drop shots.” The most subtle shot in the game made all the not-so-subtle difference. After four break points, Kerber prevailed to go up 4-2. The crowd’s roar was deafening. The German then marched to her first championship point and unleashed yet another fierce groundie. Then, as Serena’s forehand volley drifted long, Kerber fell to the Melbourne ground. Joy flooded her face, tears flowed. “This moment is something I will never forget,” she told IT. “It was worth everything.”
The first German Grand Slam winner since 1999, she’d lost eleven straight matches in 2011. Now ranked No. 2, she admitted it was all too crazy. “Now I can say I’m a Grand Slam champion,” she gushed. “I enjoyed every moment, from my first step on court.”
Her prime feeling was pride in her family, her friends and her team. “I’m not the easiest person sometimes. I had a few downs…[But] they told me, ‘Okay, let’s go to work and you will do it someday.’…The message from me is, you can work very hard and someday the work will pay off. Just follow your dreams, be patient. You will always have up and downs…But stay positive and go for it. Do what you love. This is what I’m doing and now my dream came true.”