“These were the best two weeks of my life,” Angelique Kerber told fans. She wasn’t kidding.
She’d celebrated her 28th birthday, faced match point in her opening round, advanced to her first major final, and saved her very best for last doing what most would think impossible — beating Serena Williams to win the Women’s Singles title of The Australian Open. A stage in Melbourne where the American powerhouse had never lost.
“So I take my chances, and I’m honored to be in [the] final. My dream come true,” Kerber said, in a delightful stream-of-consciousness acceptance speech that drew thousands of cheers and happy tears from the newly crowned champion. Not only had she beaten the 21-time Grand Slam winner, Serena Williams, Kerber did it in her first-ever Grand Slam final, 6-4 3-6 6-4.
“My whole life I’m working hard and now I can say I’m a Grand Slam champion, which sounds really crazy,” Kerber added. “I have the best family. The best team in the world. You are the really the best fans.”
The superlatives kept coming as her smile widened, and the shock elevated her joy.
“See you next year and thank you so much.”
For her monumental efforts, Kerber will rise to No. 2 in the world on Monday, right below her opponent. It’ll be the German’s highest ranking in her 13-year career.
For Serena, the loss seemed somewhat of a relief. She was playing in her first slam final after her humiliating semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the U. S. Open last fall. Williams still aimed for what will now remain an elusive 22nd title to tie that of Steffi Graf. But Serena’s nerves quickly rose to the surface, interfering with her game and mind. They continued to thwart her throughout the match, right up to the last point when she sent one last ball long.
“I was missing a lot off the ground, and coming in to the net,” Williams explained to the press. “She kept hitting some great shots actually every time I came in. I think I kept picking the wrong shots coming into [the net].”
For the match, Williams was 15/32 at the net. She miscalculated swinging volleys, as if adjusting to a new toy. She was 53% on first serves, winning only 69% of those points. She didn’t hit an ace until the middle of the second set, and ended the match with only seven. At the end of the first set, she had wracked up 22 unforced errors compared to three from Kerber. Williams had not lost an opening set at a major since 2011. Ironically, it was the last time she’d lost a Grand Slam final, as well. Australian Samantha Stosur reversed the expected that day, winning her only major title to date.
“This was so much more dignified than losing to Vinci,” Serena told the press.
Commonly perceived as a defensive player, Kerber exhibited her new developing offensive form in addition to optimal defense. She persistently tempered her attitude and tactics, throwing in cheeky drop-shot winners that spun widely out and away from a scrambling Serena. Kerber connected with sharply angled winners consistently, too. Power and poise were at her command against a wobbly Williams.
“I was nervous before the match but not during it,” the American said. “It was so intense. I didn’t have time to be nervous.”
In defeat, Williams exhibited grace. She heaped praise on her opponent, sometimes a rare occurrence from the champion who hates to lose more than anything.
A reporter remarked that Williams almost looked happy. “Really,” Serena replied, smiling. “I should get into acting.” Instead of leaving alone what could have been taken as an incendiary message, Serena added, “No, I was actually really happy for her. She’s been around a really long time. She played so well today. She had an attitude that I think a lot of people can learn from — just to always stay positive and never give up.”
The message was loud and clear. Williams had lost her second consecutive slam and showed signs of conciliation. She had moved from the sore-loser corner, displayed in abundance against Vinci, to a promoter of the game she leads.
“She is really a great person,” Kerber told the press. “She inspiring.”
Kerber refused to look forward in her press conference. “My phone’s exploding,” she said, beaming. One message had come in from Steffi Graf, Angie admitted. “Steffi is a champion and won 22 Grand Slams. I’ve won one.”
A dash of humility is always a good trait for any champion.