Angelique Kerber strikes another blow for late bloomers

Serena Williams’s loss in Melbourne will imbue veteran rivals with confidence

Germany’s  Angelique Kerber during the Australian Open women’s singles final against Serena Williams. Photograph: Lukas Koch/EPA

Germany’s Angelique Kerber during the Australian Open women’s singles final against Serena Williams. Photograph: Lukas Koch/EPA

 

You cannot accuse Serena Williams of not providing fair warning. Only a few days ago, when Williams was reminded that she always had won the Australian Open title after reaching the semi-finals, Williams took in the statistic and then provided the caveat.

“Nothing’s guaranteed in sports,” she said. “I still have to win two matches against potentially two extremely tough opponents.”

Perhaps it would be helpful at this advanced stage of her career not to know so well all that could go wrong. At 34, Williams has won so many big titles, growling her way through adversity of her own and the world’s making, but she also has experienced a growing number of seismic shifts in her tennis fortunes.

The latest came Saturday on a court that has long been one of her safer havens, as Angelique Kerber rose to the challenge and then some in her first grand slam final: creating sharp angles and big opportunities; absorbing Williams’s tremendous pace and intensity; and covering the court almost as well as her mentor Steffi Graf once covered it on her way to 22 major singles titles; and beating the American 6-4 3-6 6-4

Panic button

Kerber also avoided the classic trap of overplaying. She went with the percentages instead of quick fixes; earned her points by thinking clearly; and coaxed Williams into errors instead of punching the panic button and trying to be a hero. Above all, with her pulse and thoughts surely racing, Kerber was able to finish off her masterwork – the toughest task in a sport with no game clock and no time limit.

“That’s the thing we’re always wondering when you are close to closing out the match: How will you react, especially in your first grand slam final?” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Wiliams’s coach. Now we have the answer. “Congratulations,” said Mouratoglou, on what, in defeat, was a classy night all around for the gracious Williams and her camp.

But, courtesy of the last two grand slam tournaments, we also know that there truly are no guarantees in women’s tennis. How else to interpret last year’s US Open, where unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci stopped Williams’s bid for a true grand slam in the semi-finals?

“The mental part, it’s really big,” Kerber said. “I was able to see it also. I mean you must be relaxed, and you must really believe in yourself.

“This is actually the biggest thing I learn also in these two weeks, to go for it.”

Going for it only gets easier when someone went for it and survived before you.

In September, after Vinci’s upset, her Italian compatriot Flavia Pennetta became a first-time grand slam singles champion at age 33 and soon retired. Speaking before the Australian Open, Pam Shriver, the former US Open finalist who is now an analyst, suggested that Pennetta’s success would give other veteran players big ideas.

“I think it’s going to change the top players’ belief and get them thinking that there’s an opportunity for them as well,” Shriver said. Fast forward to Saturday where Kerber won her first major at age 28, making her 11 years older than Williams was when she won her first at the 1999 US Open. As the seventh seed, Kerber was not nearly as much of an outsider in Melbourne as Vinci or Pennetta were in New York. But this was Kerber’s 33rd appearance in a grand slam tournament, ranking her seventh on the Open-era list for the longest wait before a singles title.

Retiring

Pennetta, whose only major title came in her 49th appearance, ranks first on that list, followed by Marion Bartoli, who won Wimbledon in 2013 in her 47th Grand Slam appearance, shortly before retiring. Trend alert?

Absolutely, and pro tennis, an insular world, is a place where belief is contagious, particularly when Williams is not slamming aces and service winners. Saturday was one of those nights: Williams produced nearly as many double faults (6) as aces (7); put only 53 percent of her first serves in play; and won a tournament-low 69 percent of the points on her first serve when she did. New York Times Service

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