Angie Finds an Angle

by: Steve Tignor January 30, 2016

Angelique Kerber beat 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams to win her first career major. (AP)

Angelique Kerber had a word for what happened in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night.

“It’s really crazy,” she told the audience in the stadium.

“It just sounds so crazy,” she said to Chris Evert in the ESPN booth a few minutes later.

“I have so many emotions, it’s like crazy,” she told the media half an hour after that.

According to Kerber, this fact shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

“That’s how I am, a little bit crazy, you know,” she said with a laugh.

Kerber was right about one thing: Her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win over Serena Williams in the Australian Open final was, to use a few synonyms for her favorite term, one of the more bonkers, cuckoo, and downright barmy results in recent Grand Slam history. Williams came in having won all six title matches she had played in Rod Laver Arena. She was 21-4 in major finals and hadn’t lost one in five years. And she was 5-1 against Kerber, who was making her Slam-final debut at the ripe old tennis age of 28. 

All of this had led me to write, in my preview of the match on Friday, “Should the question be, ‘Who is going to win?’ Or should it be, ‘How many games is the loser going to get?’ That would seem to be the only suspenseful aspect of this match.” Well, Kerber ended up winning 15 games, including—nuttiest of all—the final one on Serena’s serve.

Yet while Kerber was right about the outcome, she was wrong about herself: She was the farthest thing from crazy during the match. She was also, until the very end, the farthest thing from uptight, overwhelmed, agitated, or out of her normal rhythm. After watching Serena roll over Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0 in the first set of their semifinal, I had wondered if Kerber might suffer the same fate. Not even close: Instead, she made her way through her opening service game, which included a smoothly hit ace down the T, as calmly as if she were playing a first-rounder in Bogota. 

“I was going out there trying not to think too much that it’s a Grand Slam final,” Kerber said. “I was going out there and going, ‘OK, I can beat her, I beat her once.' If you’re just hoping, you can’t win against her.”

“I was just trying to play my tennis,” Kerber said.

Kerber’s game happened to be exactly the right one for the moment and the opponent. Before the match, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had been asked what potential problems Kerber might present. It was surprising and interesting to hear him mention her serve.

We normally don’t think of this shot, which the German often just pushes over the net, as a weapon, but Mouratoglou said that its reverse lefty spin is tricky, and that it stays low and moves away from Serena’s two-handed backhand. Mouratoglou knew what he was talking about, but he probably didn’t know just how effective Kerber’s serve would be. She came up with five aces, just two fewer than Serena, and her variety of targets and angles kept Serena from finding a comfortable groove on her return. When Kerber hit her third ace out wide in the deuce court, Serena hung her head in exasperation. “Really? Again?” she seemed to say.

“I’ve been trying to improve my serve the last few months,” Kerber said, “trying to make it faster and flatter and use the angles.” 

Targets and angles: They were key for Kerber not just on the serve, but from the ground as well. On this night, the German’s style and strengths matched up perfectly against the world No. 1. Where Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka try, and typically fail, to slug with the pace-loving Serena, Kerber hit softer balls at sharper angles that took Serena wide of the alleys. 

Then, when Serena began to look for the sharp crosscourt strike, Kerber changed her target and went down the line, especially with her hard-to-read forehand. In American football, they call it spreading the field; on Saturday, Kerber spread the court. While there were plenty of long rallies, she never let the match turn into a toe-to-toe slugfest. When Serena tried to end those rallies at the net, Kerber hit her targets with her passing shots.

Finally, at 3-2 in the third set, Kerber tried a play she hadn’t tried all night, the backhand drop shot. Then she tried it again. Both times Serena was caught too deep in the court; both times the ball went for a winner. Kerber, in the longest game of the match, eventually broke.

“I was so shaky,” Kerber said, mimicking her drop-shot stroke. “I was like, please go over the net.”

“She had some great drop shots, twice,” Serena said. “...I definitely could have got them. I’m really fast. But I just wasn’t able to read that one in time.”

That last sentence makes for a pretty good summation of the evening from Serena’s perspective. This match reminded me a little of her loss to her sister Venus in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Serena fought to win without her best stuff, but never quite made it over the hump. She caught up, but couldn't take the lead. 

“I think I did the best I could today,” Serena said. “You know, would I give myself an A? No. But today this is what I could produce today.”

Serena finished with 47 winners and 46 errors, and made just 53 percent of her first serves, which meant she didn’t always have her biggest weapon when she needed it. Coming into the final, Serena had been broken four times in six matches; she was broken five times by Kerber. Serena came to the net 32 times and won just 15 points there; people will question that tactic, but credit Kerber for forcing her to hit low volley after low volley.

“She kept hitting some great shots every time I came in, actually,” Serena said. “I think I kept picking the wrong shots coming into it.”

For me, though, it was a return of serve that defined Serena’s night. After going down 0-2 in the third set, she drew even at 2-2, and hit a confident-looking forehand winner to make the score 30-30. Kerber began the next point by missing her first serve, and pushed her second one in at 75 m.p.h. Here, surely was the moment when Serena would assert herself. Instead, she let the ball get too close to her and sent a backhand return long. Kerber held serve and took what would be an insurmountable lead.

Even with that lead, by the end Kerber couldn’t pretend any longer that this just another match. From 2-5 down, Serena, as expected, cleaned up her game. Kerber, as expected, grew nervous. But she stayed smart; she knew what she was capable of, and she didn't try to do more.

“When I hit match point,” Kerber said, “I was just hoping to return the ball over the net.”

She succeeded. Even better for her, she kept it low over the net. That was enough, as Serena missed a final forehand volley.

“When the ball was out from her,” Kerber said, “I was just, yeah, so happy. I mean, it’s amazing.”

Amazing, definitely. But as her win sank in, another word came to her mind.

“It sounds crazy," Kerber said, "but I can say I’m a Grand Slam champion now."

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