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Angelique Kerber is now 2-1 when facing Serena Williams in Grand Slam finals. (AP)

Steve Flink: A Locked-In Kerber Was Ready for Serena in the Wimbledon Final

LONDON—As the fortnight progressed and the seeds kept falling in the women’s draw at the most significant tournament in all of tennis, there was a growing feeling that order would be restored in the end and Serena Willams would walk away with her 24th major singles title and an eighth singles tournament victory on the lawns at the All England Club. To be clear, Serena had not been perfect over the fortnight, and had looked quite vulnerable at certain stages of the tournament, dropping a set to Camila Giorgi in the quarters, and fighting hard before stopping Kristina Mladenovic a few rounds earlier. The No. 25 seed had made her presence known, but was hardly looking invincible.

And yet, she had sparkled in a 6-2, 6-4 semifinal triumph over No. 13 seed Julia Georges. It seemed entirely possible that she was peaking at precisely the right time, and therefore was primed to beat No. 11 seed Angelique Kerber in the final. Kerber had been in remarkably good form, dropping only one set on her way to a second Wimbledon final, performing with increasing authority and vigor in a pair of hard fought and uplifting victories over No. 14 seed Daria Kasatkina and No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko in quarterfinal and semifinal appointments. To be sure, Kerber was a player of growing self conviction down the homestretch of the tournament, and the 30-year-old German was reminding us all why she had climbed to No. 1 in the world two years ago, when she claimed two major titles as well as reaching the Wimbledon final.

But no one could have anticipated what would unfold on the fabled Centre Court as Kerber collided with Williams for the second time in a title-round contest there. Serena had won 23 of 29 major finals as she approached this meeting with Kerber. In addition to losing to the German at the Australian Open final of 2016, Williams had suffered setbacks in Grand Slam tournament finals only to her sister Venus (twice), Maria Sharapova, Sam Stosur and Garbine Muguruza. Her propensity to rise to large occasions and take matters into her own hands has been extraordinary, second to no one in the modern era.

Kerber, however, was a woman who clearly believed she could come through on the sport’s premier stage. Having lost to Serena here in 2016, she was not in awe of her surroundings. Kerber stepped out into the renowned arena and made it apparent from the outset of the final that she would not be intimidated by either Serena or the setting. The crafty German showed up for work with a deep supply of determination, a game plan from which she would not stray, and a belief that this could and would be her day.

Williams, meanwhile, was unmistakably apprehensive and painfully vulnerable. Perhaps garnering a first major as a mother was foremost in her mind. Maybe she was mentally fatigued after playing more tennis over the fortnight than she had for a long while. It might have been that Serena simply thought deep down that she was facing the wrong opponent at the worst possible time.

Whatever the reasons for the outlooks of both competitors, it was Kerber who came out of the gates with singular focus and decidedly more confidence than her adversary. Williams led 30-0 in the opening game, but proceeded to miss three consecutive backhands, and all of those mistakes were unprovoked. Down 30-40, the 36-year-old was rushed into a forehand down-the-line error by a well struck backhand crosscourt from Kerber.

And so the German southpaw had the immediate break for 1-0, commencing the battle in the best possible fashion. She followed with a comfortable hold for 2-0, reaching 40-15 with a superb T serve setting up a forehand down-the-line winner. She dropped only the one point in that game, rolling to 2-0 convincingly. But now the iconic American asserted herself swiftly, holding at 30 by releasing a first serve at 111-M.P.H. that opened up an avenue for a backhand down-the-line winner. Williams then broke at love for 2-2, stepping up the pace of her shots, keeping Kerber off balance. Gaining momentum, building confidence briefly, executing admirably, Serena held at 15 with her biggest serve of the afternoon, connecting for a 125-M.P.H. ace down the T.

It was 3-2 for Williams. She had swept 12-of-15 points and three consecutive games. Some seasoned observers thought that the prodigious American had found her range and would make Kerber unsettled.

They could not have been more mistaken on both counts. Kerber opened the sixth game with a trademark forehand winner down the line. She followed with another forehand winner as Serena found herself stranded on the opposite side of the court. Kerber reached 40-0, bending her knees in her inimically pronounced way, sending a flat two-hander down the line into the clear. Kerber crucially held at 15 for 3-3. Serena served abysmally in the seventh game, double faulting consecutively to trail 0-40. She rallied to 30-40 but was broken at 30 as Kerber stung her with a penetrating forehand down the line that drew an errant forehand.

Just like that, Kerber had reestablished her superiority on the day. The German player fell behind 15-30 in the eighth game but collected three points in a row with sound percentage tactics and solid play from the backcourt. Kerber had moved to 5-3. With Serena serving at 30-30 in the next game, Kerber pounced. A high return off a 118-M.P.H. first serve from Williams elicited an error. At 30-40, Williams erred again, netting a backhand down the line to concede the set, 6-3. Kerber had captured four games in a row to seal it, taking 16-of-23 points to finish off the set.

Remarkably, Williams had been broken thrice in that opening set, and that did not auger well for her chances. She was way out of sync and her body language revealed a player who did not have her customary sense of self. Yet Kerber knew she had to keep playing top-of-the-line tennis. She could afford no lapses. Kerber opened the second set with an ace out wide and held at 15 for 1-0. Her serving strategy was demonstrably wise. Time and again in the deuce court, she went out wide to the Williams forehand with a vexing combination of kick and slice. Serena could not find her timing on the returns and she was beaten time and again by the German’s serving accuracy and acumen.

Williams did manage to hold at 30 for 1-1, and then reached 15-30 on the Kerber serve in the third game. But the American bungled an opportunity on that important point, punching a high forehand volley awkwardly, allowing the German to pass her with a forehand down the line. Kerber held at 30 for 2-1. An unwavering Williams held at 30 for 2-2, shouting “Come On!” as she closed out that game.

But there would not be many moments left like that one for Serena. Kerber raced to 40–0 in the fifth game before Williams took the next three points, but Kerber stuck assiduously to her tactical recipe, swinging her southpaw serve wide to the Williams forehand, opening up the court with a crosscourt forehand, and forcing Serena into a running backhand error. It was 3-2 for the German.

Soon Kerber created another opportunity, reaching 15-40 in the sixth game, looking to cement her advantage. A backhand swing-volley winner from Serena made it 30-40 but Kerber secured the next point with a scintillating forehand down-the-line winner, driving that shot into the corner and out of reach. That timely shot lifted Kerber into a 4-2 lead, and she promptly held for 5-2.

The murmur around Centre Court told the whole story. Williams was on the verge of defeat against an opponent who was not missing. It was just about as simple as that.

Serving to stay in the final, Williams played one of her finest service games of the day, holding at love, producing two aces, letting Kerber know that she would not tamely surrender.

Kerber realized she would need to put the clamps down, and not lightly. Serving for the match at 5-3, Kerber drew another error by serving to Serena’s forehand, and then advanced to 30-0 when Williams somehow missed a swing volley from almost on top of the net, sending that shot long. Nevertheless, Williams grabbed the next two points for 30-30, applying some psychological pressure with her late stand. Kerber made a tremendous pickup off Serena’s return, half-volleying deep into the corner. Serena sent back a high-trajectory backhand crosscourt, hoping to perhaps coax an error from the German.

Nothing doing. Kerber drove a majestic forehand down the line for a dazzling outright winner. At 40-30, up match point, Kerber went with a body serve to the backhand. Serena’s return found the net. In 65 minutes, Kerber had captured her third major title and had recorded her second triumph in three major-final meetings with Serena, winning 6-3, 6-3. Across the two sets, Kerber made a mere five unforced errors, 19 fewer than her discombobulated opponent. Kerber lost her serve only once but broke Serena no fewer than four times.

The fearsome Williams serve was not there in this match. Her average first serve speed was down at 105 M.P.H., and Kerber had a good read on it all through the encounter. In the final analysis, Kerber was at her best, exploiting the forehand down the line persuasively, serving with precision and purpose, returning with consistent depth. Williams played an abysmal tennis match, dropping 10 of the last 13 games, never approaching the top of her game, seldom finding a formula that could make her more dangerous on this occasion.

And so Serena Williams was beaten for only the seventh time in 30 career major finals. Kerber holds the distinction of twice toppling the great champion in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments. Williams was not discouraged by the defeat.

She said, “These two weeks have shown me that, okay, I can compete. Obviously I can compete for the long run in a Grand Slam. I can come out and be a contender to win Grand Slams. This is just the beginning, literally just the beginning. These two weeks were so mental for me. I won matches and was literally mentally fighting for literally every match. I did the best that I could every single match that I played. I just feel like I am taking the steps in the right direction. I took a giant step at Wimbledon.”

For her part, Kerber was exhilarated and appreciative about what she had done and where it could lead.

“Here, especially after 2017, I think nobody was expecting me so strong back, to coming back now and winning my third Grand Slam, to winning Wimbledon, which was always my dream. I think two weeks ago nobody expected I can go so far.”

Kerber attributed her success to a wide range of experience.

As she said, “Because I’m 30 already, I think I have had so much experience over the years. I know the feeling of going out there in the semifinals and playing the finals. I played here once in the final already, so I knew what to expect. I think that helped me to being a little relaxed today, to going out there focusing on my match and not thinking that it is the final of Wimbledon.”

Kerber is projected to rise to No. 4 in the world next week, and now she is in a position to challenge again for the top ranking in the world. It is good for the game that she is back in the thick of things after a lackluster campaign in 2017. She belongs at or near the top. As for Williams, she figures to make it all the way up from No. 181 to No. 28. By the US Open, she will be awfully tough to beat as she sets her sights on tying Margaret Court for the record with 24 majors in singles.

Be that as it may, Angelique Kerber will be fighting with a full heart to regain the title she won in 2016, and it will take someone of immense drive and determination to prevent the German from going deep into the last Grand Slam tournament of 2018.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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