It was hers for the picking, getting to this stage and with what was at stake for her, or so many bookmakers who gave it to Serena Williams thought . But they did not take into account the agility, resilience and determination of Angelique Kerber, which eventually counted in who lifts this year’s Australian Open cup.
And so, Williams, yet again suffered her second seismic shock in as many grand-slam events when Kerber, the unfavoured underdog from Germany, outplayed her in the memorable season’s open final.
Kerber’s win follows on from Roberta Vinci’s ambush of Williams at September’s US Open, which stymied the possibility of a calendar grand slam. It also means that Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles survives until early June, at the very least.
No-one gave Kerber much of a chance going in. She plays a grinding, defensive game in which the key statistic is usually her low number of unforced errors. But against Williams’s unparalleled firepower? Surely she would be overpowered.
Yet we were not reckoning with the anxiety that seemed to grip Williams throughout the match. She started the match confidently enough, claiming the first game in two minutes with her usual barrage of 110mph serves and heavy groundstrokes. But then she began accumulating a legion of unforced errors, as her feet refused to glide up to their ball with their usual alacrity.
Williams was also keen to come forward to the net, a strategy that the coaching team led by Patrick Mouratoglou had presumably developed before the match. But her volleys were woeful as she won just 15 of 32 such points.
Meanwhile, Kerber was starting to show how she won her place in the final, having taken out tournament favourite Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-final and Great Briton’s Jo Konta in the semi. She kept the ball alive for longer than Williams expected on almost every point, showing phenomenal court coverage and the single-minded focus of a beagle at a fox-hunt. Her ability to hit passing shots on the run – or at the very least punch the ball back for a low and awkward volley – left Williams’s pre-match strategy in tatters.
It was one such volley, in fact, that ended the match after 2hr 8mins, as Williams floated the ball unaccountably long off her forehand side. Kerber was home, by a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 scoreline, and she fell on her back in the internationally recognised symbol of tennis jubilation.
In contrast to her almost speechless press conference after the Vinci defeat in New York, Williams was surprisingly upbeat about this result, smiling her way through the post-match interview and offering longer answers than she has at any other stage of tournament.
“I was actually really happy for her,” Williams said. “She had an attitude that I think a lot of people can learn from: just to always stay positive and to never give up. I was really inspired by that. So, honestly, she’s a really good girl. If I couldn’t win, I’m happy she did.”
She also expressed her frustration at the common assumption that she should waltz to the trophy in every tournament she plays. “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.”
Having taken her grand-slam tally from 18 to 21 in one unbroken sequence, dating from the 2014 US Open of 2014 to last year’s Wimbledon, Williams has now suffered two straight misses in her drive to equal Graf.
Ironically, Kerber cites Graf as her tennis idol and heroine, and feels that her own transformation from Top-10 regular to title contender dates back to a visit to Graf’s home in Las Vegas last spring. “She taught me actually that I’m on a good way, and try to believe in myself,” said Kerber before the final. “I was trying to do it in the last few months.”
Lots of admin to get through from various suits, but eventually we get to hear from the two players.
Williams: “Thank you so much for the support. Well done to Angelique, you truly deserve it.
An overwhelmed Kerber responds: “First of all, I would like to congratulate Serena – you are such an inspiration for so many young players, and you are an unbelievably great person, so congrats for everything you’ve done already.
“When I played in the first round I was match point down, and I’m so honoured to win it. My dream has come true on this night, and my whole life I was working really hard. I’m a grand slam champion – it sounds unbelievable!
“Thank you to all my family, I owe you so much. I know I’m not easy, but I have the best team in the world, and thank you to all the fans as well. Thank you.
“It’s been the best two weeks of my life, and you are the best fans in the world. See you next year, thank you so so much. Thank you.