Melbourne: It may not have been an upset in the same league as the U.S. Open but what happened at the Australian Open on Saturday perhaps wasn’t far off.
Angelique Kerber stunned Serena Williams in a 6-4 3-6 6-4 thriller to open her grand slam account and deprive the American of a historic 22nd title at a major that would have tied Steffi Graf for the Open Era lead.
Just how rare is it for Williams to lose a grand slam final?
She had won her last eight and was 21-4 overall.
And after Kerber upset Williams in Cincinnati in 2012, the world No. 1 reeled off four consecutive victories against the German without conceding a set.
The result followed Williams’ defeat to Roberta Vinci in New York in September, one of the biggest upsets of all time in tennis, and one can’t help but ponder if nerves — or the weight of expectation — are now getting to the 34-year-old in the most pivotal matches.
“Every time I walk into this room, everyone expects me to win every single match,” she told reporters in the main interview room. “As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not. I try to.
“I do the best I can.”
Her comment resembled Roger Federer’s “I’ve created a monster” line after the Swiss suffered a rare, in those days, loss in the Australian Open semifinals in 2008 to Novak Djokovic. That “monster” was the pressure of having to keep on winning in the wake of repeatedly crushing his rivals.
Maybe it was simply meant to be for the left-handed Kerber, who became the first German to win a grand slam since her idol Graf in 1999. The seventh seed saved a match point in the first round against Misaki Doi.
“My phone is exploding right now,” said Kerber, who will rise to second in the rankings.
Kerber sunk to her knees when Williams erred on a forehand volley long on match point and soon was in tears to end an evening that was marked by the latter’s plethora of unforced errors in the first set but turned into an absorbing two-hour affair.
Defense over attack:
Ultimately it was the counter-punching of Kerber, who was a late bloomer in tennis, that stifled the attack of Williams, the defending champion.
Twice in the gripping third set she produced breathtaking passes, striking a forehand down the line and another forehand crosscourt as rallies morphed into mini-marathons.
Given Williams’ history, when she rallied from 5-2 down in the third to get to 4-5, how many picked Kerber to prevail? But she did, Williams giving Kerber a match point by missing a forehand into the net and then sending the comfortable looking volley long.
Kerber’s sensational retrieving may have been a factor in the miscue but Williams had an abundance of space to get back to deuce. Overall Williams committed 46 unforced errors.
“I was missing a lot off the ground, coming to the net,” said Williams. “She kept hitting some great shots actually every time I came in.”
Twenty-three alone came in the first, when the rallies weren’t as long as in the third. Williams was simply misfiring — and early in points. Kerber, meanwhile, did her thing on defense and mixed in attack when given the chance, a new-found strategy initiated in the off-season. She tallied 25 winners and made a miniscule 13 unforced errors.
“I think Angie deserved it today because she was fighting for every point,” Kerber’s coach, Torben Beltz, said as he sipped a glass of red wine. “Going forward, when she had a chance to be aggressive, playing aggressive and going for her big shots.
“I’m feeling like great, emotional. Unbelievable match. Very emotional for me for sure.”
An early Kerber break to start the final, then, on a pleasant evening in Melbourne foreshadowed what was to come.
She led 3-1 and 30-0 on the Williams serve.
A Williams charge, though, the kind she engineered last year when battling her way to the title at the French Open, seemed on the cards. From 15-30, a hefty serve prompted a “come on” and there was another “come on” followed by a fist pump when a forehand winner followed.
Williams broke for 3-3 and order appeared to be restored.
Yet the uncertainty in Williams’ game ensued. She was not only off the mark, but erring by a yard long or yard wide. When another forehand went astray to fall behind 4-3, all she could do was offer an ironic smile to her box.
Unforced errors aren’t always an indication of how a player is performing, but the first-set numbers in this case were reflective of Williams’ lethargy. The 23 for Williams spoke volumes.
Kerber’s unexpected advantage masked the fact she wasn’t serving well. Her first-serve percentage dipped and it was only down to Williams’ charity that the 28-year-old was winning points on her inviting second serve.
Winning a set off Williams in a grand slam final is one thing — it was the first set she lost this fortnight — but finishing the job is another matter entirely.
A good start for Williams was imperative and she got it to move things along for 2-1. Kerber subsequently waned. The aforementioned serve produced two double faults in the fourth game and the Bremen native paid the price to trail 3-1.
Williams was starting to tidy up her game nicely and the second-set statistics proved it: 16 winners and a paltry five unforced errors.
No comeback this time:
But the expected waltz for Williams didn’t materialize in the third. Kerber produced the shot of the match when she lashed the forehand passing shot down the line from well behind the baseline.
She raised her arm in jubilation and her joy escalated when leading 2-0.
A hold for Kerber would have swung the odds in her favor but that didn’t happen. Instead Williams broke for 1-2.
The to and fro ensued. Kerber brought the fans out of their seats again with a a cross-court forehand pass, exemplifying her tenacity.
“I think I kept picking the wrong shots coming into,” the net, said Williams.
Even when she lost a protracted rally at 3-2 — Kerber ran 70 meters — she was sending a message to Williams that she wasn’t going anywhere.
Three break points for Kerber came and went in the enthralling sixth game, the third one erased with a backhand into the corner. But on game point, Kerber kept the game going with a deft drop shot, her first of the match.
The pattern continued. Another Kerber drop shot stopped Williams from drawing level. A double fault soon followed and on her fifth opportunity, Williams struck a forehand long to cap the mesmerizing 10-minute game.
“She had some great drop shots,” said Williams. “They were unexpected because she hadn’t hit any until the third set.”
Kerber held to love for 5-2 and was on the brink of victory at 30-all in the next game. Williams, however, hung on.
Presented with a chance to serve it out, Kerber produced a shaky error on the first point. But Williams also stepped up her game, hitting two good returns, including one on a second break point to pull to 4-5.
There would be no comeback.
The underdog triumphing could give Andy Murray hope in Sunday’s men’s final. He will play Djokovic, who now seeks a sixth Australian Open crown. The world No. 1 has already toppled Murray in three Australian Open finals and is coming off a resounding semifinal win over Federer.
Saturday belonged to Kerber.
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