Kerber upsets struggling Williams en route to first Grand Slam win

By the way Serena Williams was playing at the Australian Open before the women’s final against seventh-seeded Angelique Kerber from Germany, one would think that Williams, a 21-time Grand Slam champion, would win this one handily. Williams was heavily favored because she had a 5-1 record against Kerber, she had never lost a match in the final at the Australian Open and Kerber was in her first-ever Grand Slam singles final. Williams had not lost a set to anyone in her six matches prior to the final, even though she had not played a match in the four months between the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. In the week leading up to the final, most claimed that the only possible threat to Williams was Victoria Azarenka, two-time Grand Slam and Australian Open champion and former-world number one. However, Kerber dispatched Azarenka in the semifinals, which supposedly cleared the way for Williams to win her 22nd Grand Slam title, and join the former great Steffi Graf of Germany with the most majors in the Open Era.

Therefore, it was stunning to see Williams lose to Kerber, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, spraying an uncharacteristic 46 unforced errors. From the start, Williams seemed nervous and was not playing like her normal self. Her serve usually gets her free points by preventing opponents from breaking serve and by bailing her out of trouble when facing break points. But she struggled to get her first serve going at all. She served almost as many double faults, six, as aces, seven, only made her first serve 53 percent of the time and only won 69 percent of her first serve points, a tournament low for Williams. Her serve let her down at critical moments in the match. For example, at 3-2, 40-40 in the third set, Williams double-faulted to give Kerber a break point, which allowed Kerber to break Williams on the next point. Also, she played poorly at net, either getting passed by Kerber or missing volleys, as she did on Kerber’s match point. Williams’ nerves were also on display through her inconsistent play.  For one point, she would play well, smashing overpowering winners out of Kerber’s reach. But then for the next point, Williams would all of a sudden look unsettled and hit a wild unforced error that came nowhere near the court. It was a microcosm for how she played the match, because in the first and third sets she was not playing well at all, but in the second set she played well and rebounded to take the set, showing how at times she flashed her normal brilliance, but for the most part was lacking her game.

It was reminiscent of the semifinal match at the U.S. Open against Roberta Vinci, where Williams also lost in three sets and looked flustered, as she did against Kerber. Although she had the pressure of winning the calendar-year Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, Williams did not have that pressure here, but it looked as if fears and doubts crept into Williams’ mind that the performance against Vinci could repeat, and that because of this, she would not be able to win the match and join Graf in history.

However, Kerber did not just win the match because of Williams’ poor play. Kerber played one of the best matches of her career in her 33rd  appearance in a Grand Slam. She ranks seventh on the list of players who have played in the most Grand Slams before winning one. Kerber only hit 13 unforced errors, and her winners-to-unforced-errors differential was plus-12, which is much better than Williams’ differential of plus-1. Kerber was able to return Williams’ serve much more effectively than any of Williams’ other six opponents. Kerber returned 81 percent of Williams’ serves, compared to Williams’ other six opponents who could only return more than 70 percent of her serves. Additionally, Kerber broke Williams’ serve five times after Williams had only been broken four times before the final.

Somehow, through most of the match, she was able to keep her nerves in check and displayed great composure. Although she tensed up and got broken after serving for the match at 5-3 in the third set, she came right back and broke Williams to win the match. In the third set, when the pressure was on, Kerber showed her tremendous touch after multiple perfect drop shots landed just over the net, making them unreachable for Williams. It was odd that Kerber, appearing in a Grand Slam final for the first time, had so much poise and composure in such a tense situation whereas Williams, the seasoned veteran, should not have been the one in such disarray. With the win, Kerber will move up in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings from seventh to second, right behind Williams.

It was a final of firsts. It was the first Grand Slam title for Kerber, first loss in an Australian Open final for Williams and it was the first time that Williams had ever lost a three-set Grand Slam final. Had Williams won, she would have been tied with Graf for the most Grand Slams in singles with 22. However, in an interesting twist, Kerber joins Graf as the only other German woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open Era.