Angelique Kerber pulled off a stunning upset to deny Serena Williams a record-equaling 22nd Grand Slam title and instead take her maiden Major crown with a 6-4 3-6 6-4 victory in the Australian Open final. Despite being at this stage of a Grand Slam for the first time, it was Kerber, the tournament’s seventh seed, who played the steadiest tennis throughout and incredibly held her nerve at the end to seal by far the biggest win of her career.
In doing so, she became the first German Grand Slam winner since Steffi Graf 17 years ago. And that was far from the only way in which she honored the legacy of her legendary compatriot, childhood idol and occasional mentor. The stage had been set for Williams to match the Open-Era record of Grand Slam titles held by Graf. Yet, just as in the semifinals of the U.S. Open five months ago, when also chasing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Graf, Williams could not produce her best with a historic feat within her sights.
This, though, was not a Williams collapse on par with the emotional meltdown witnessed in New York. And to focus on Williams’ disappointment would be to take away from what was a quite brilliant performance by Kerber in a thrilling contest packed with drama.
The 28-year-old had long struggled to deliver against the best in the women’s game and on the sport’s biggest stages. Last year, she failed to get past the third round of any of the four Grand Slams. And that disappointing record appeared set to continue in Melbourne, when she faced match point in her opening round. Yet coming through that adversity appeared to galvanize the Bremen-native.
In the fourth round, she secured a first ever victory over two-time Australian Open champion and the woman many expected to be facing Williams in the final, Victoria Azarenka. Having dealt with the pressure so well on that occasion, as well as breaking out from being a mere counter-puncher, she rose to an even greater challenge under the lights of Rod Laver Arena on Saturday.
“When I played here the first round I was match point down, so I actually had one leg on the plane to Germany,” she said during the trophy presentation as she fought back the tears. “And now I’m here. I think I got another chance and I took my chance to be here in the finals to play against Serena. My dream came true tonight. My whole life I was working really hard and now I’m here and I can say I’m a Grand Slam champion, so it sounds really crazy and unbelievable.”
As well as landing her maiden Major, Kerber will also now move up to second place, behind only Williams, in the world rankings. She had won just one her previous six meetings with Williams, back in 2012, but she could not have wished for a better start to the biggest match of her life. Unlike so many first-time Grand Slam finalists, Kerber settled immediately, playing remarkably steadily and breaking Williams in her first service game.
While before the match there was reason to believe that it would be Kerber’s second serve that would be decisively punished, it was Williams who had a rare poor day with arguably the most dominant shot in women’s tennis. Her footwork was also far from its usual supreme level, and, while she rallied to break back, Kerber immediately struck to retake the initiative. With just three unforced errors to her opponent’s 23, Kerber grabbed the opening set.
Such a start needn’t have elicited panic from Williams. Last year, she made a habit of getting into holes in Grand Slam matches only to come through with flying colors. And it appeared that script was set to be followed once again. While Serena cut down dramatically on her mistakes, making just five unforced errors in the second set, Kerber for the first time began to show signs of feeling the pressure exerted by trying to answer the greatest challenge in women’s tennis. And, after taking the second set 6-3, the America was a strong favorite to go on and etch an even more prominent place in history.
Kerber, though, was unwilling to simply follow the script. After exchanging breaks at the start of the third set, the match would turn in a memorable sixth game. Williams, who had seen a Kerber pass flick up off the net cord and strike her on the shoulder, saved four break points as her opponent continued to play exceptional defense and find some remarkable angles with her ground strokes. Two double faults and an errant forehand gave Kerber the break.
Unsurprisingly, serving for her first Grand Slam title, nerves struck for the first and only time, allowing Williams to get back on serve. Yet the very next game she went straight back to business. And when Williams stiffed a volley long, Kerber released her racket and dropped to the ground in disbelief at her remarkable accomplishment.