Serena Williams’ 19-match winning streak, which saw her take the Wimbledon and Stanford titles then Olympics gold, came to an end today in the Cincinnati quarterfinals as she lost to Angelique Kerber, surely the WTA’s most improved player over the last 12 months, 6-4, 6-4.
Kerber and Williams have played just once before, but it was so long ago — the 2007 U.S. Open — and so much has happened for both in the intervening time that it was like a first meeting. Williams has looked tired and rattled in her previous two matches, opening her match today by being broken to love. The difference was that Kerber, whose shoulder was heavily strapped, came into the match having won 51 matches this year on the WTA tour and was poised, confident and classy enough to take advantage.
Williams had chances to get back on serve with Kerber serving at 2-1 after unbelievable retrieving and aggressive returning gave her three break points. Kerber saved the first with an ace, the second with a fine backhand, but on the third Williams saw a second serve, stepped into the ball to hammer a backhand winner, and put it into the net. Kerber held and although Williams was largely untouchable on serve for the rest of the set despite serving at 48 percent for the match, she would not get so near the German’s again.
Kerber, who reads the game beautifully, combines powerful ball-striking with the kind of defensive solidity more usually associated with counter punchers and Williams, often forced to scramble and retrieve, was too erratic in attack today. With Kerber serving for the set at 5-4, Williams had a short ball and an open court for 15-30; instead she went back at Kerber, who redirected the ball to force the error. She had a break point and put a forehand wide, then played a poor drop shot which Kerber chased down easily for the set.
We haven’t seen the anguished Serena Williams for a while, the one who looks on the verge of tears and spreads her hands in seeming helplessness after errors, but she was much in evidence today as Kerber continued to play solid attacking tennis. Williams tossed her racquet after being broken to love at 1-1 in the second set with a truly poor game, then picked it up and smashed it; as Kerber consolidated, Williams put another short backhand second-serve return into the net, then knelt and bowed her head, in prayer or perhaps in horror. It got worse; with Kerber serving at 4-3, Williams had 15-30, then put an overhead and a drive volley into the net on consecutive points that she should have won.
Williams just couldn’t quite get it going and Kerber wasn’t giving her anything; even when the German served for the match, she snuffed out 15-30 with a beautiful serve-and-backhand combination and didn’t let a double fault on her first match point throw her, nor an unlucky net cord on her second. She struck an ace on her third for her ninth semifinal appearance of 2012 and sent Williams home for some much-needed rest before New York.