Any prospect of a shift in power in women’s tennis at the start of 2016 already appears to have been extinguished. Now, for Serena Williams, Sunday’s Australian Open final presents the chance not just to reassert her current dominance but to further etch her name in the history books.
Last year’s U.S. Open semifinal defeat to Roberta Vinci was a crushing, emotionally draining blow at the end of a year dominated by talk of a first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988. Going into the Australian Open, she had not completed a match since that loss, with doubts existing over her physical and mental condition.
But those questions have been spectacularly answered. Williams has romped through to the final in Melbourne, having barely even come close to dropping a set. In her last two matches she has swept aside great rival Maria Sharapova and fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska to book her place in Sunday’s showpiece.
If she is successful she would join Martina Navratilova as the only player to have won six Grand Slams without losing a single set. But, more significantly for the American, it presents a chance for her to win Grand Slam title number 22, equaling the Open-Era record of Steffi Graf. Yet, as she has since arriving in Melbourne, Williams continues to insist that she if focusing on just enjoying the moment.
“I definitely block it out. I was one off last year, too. If I don't win on Saturday, I'll still be one off. It took me forever to get to 18. I was so stressed out. I don't want to relive that at all.”
While Williams can win her seventh Australian Open title, in her seventh final, the daunting task of stopping her now falls to a player who will be walking out for her very first Grand Slam final.
For Angelique Kerber, reaching the final for the first time in her 33rd attempt already constitutes a major success. Having survived being match point down in her opening round, the 28-year-old made a key breakthrough in the quarterfinal. From the moment the draw was made, many had already penciled in a final between Williams and Victoria Azarenka. The early rounds had done little to dissuade that view, neither did Azarenka’s 6-0 head-to-head record against Kerber going into their last-eight contest.
But the German seventh seed, displaying a new-found commitment to aggressive tennis, ended the run of the two-time Australian Open champion in straight sets. And Kerber backed up that win in impressive fashion when, in her third Grand Slam semifinal, dealing with the pressure of being favorite up against unseeded fairytale Johanna Konta. And after failing to deliver in the big events for so long, finally reaching a Grand Slam final has been particularly pleasing.
“Yeah, I mean, of course, that's a special moment, a special feeling to get there right now, to being in the final,” she said after beating Konta 7-5 6-2. “I mean, I'm four years in the top 10. I was not playing so good last year in the big tournaments. Now that was my focus, to play better in the bigger one. Now I'm in the finals here. So that means a lot. I had great two weeks here with ups and downs, with the first match point down playing against a German. So a lot of things.”
She will be a heavy underdog going into the final, but the fact that she has lost five of her six matches against Williams, including the last four, needn’t faze Kerber given her overcoming of similar history against Azarenka.
Match time: Saturday, 3:30 a.m. EST
Prediction: Kerber has impressed hugely in two very different matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals, providing some confidence that she can handle the pressure of playing on her biggest stage to date. But she is a player that has wilted in similar situations in the past and the challenge of going up against Williams is like no other in women’s tennis. Yet the truth is that whether or not Kerber is able to produce her best will not matter to the ultimate outcome if Williams plays as she has over the past two weeks. While last year she had plenty of dips during the course of her runs at the Grand Slams, in Melbourne she has been switched on and in supreme form from the start. It would be a stunning upset, therefore, were Williams not to get her hands on her 22nd Grand Slam title on Saturday night.
Predicted score: Williams in straight sets.