As recently as last April, Kerber had won just one title in three years—Linz in 2013—and after a promising start in Sydney, had won just two matches in six tournaments to drop to No16 in the rankings.
Then came the turnaround: back-to-back titles in Charleston and Stuttgart, then titles on Birmingham’s grass and Stanford’s hard courts, and come the Asian swing, a semi finish in Wuhan and final finish in Hong Kong. She ended 2015 as No5, and this year has used her final run in Brisbane as a springboard to her best-ever Grand Slam run.
Had there been any doubt of the German’s hot form, it was soon dismissed after her straight-sets win over former champion, and one of the favourites for the title, Victoria Azarenka, so this was always going to be a big ask for Konta in their first meeting.
Kerber, who began the tournament saving match point against the No64 Misaki Doi in Round 1, made sure that she raced from the blocks fast and broke Konta twice for a 3-0 lead.
But Konta shook off some nerves to return the favour, breaking back and levelling at 3-3, and a confidence-boosting love hold took her into a marginal lead, 4-3, for the first time.
A string of errors from the Briton in the 11th game, though, handed Kerber a timely break, and the powerful left-hander served out the set to love, 7-5.
The start of the second set matched the first, with Kerber breaking straight away, and then defending a break point for a 2-0 lead. But this time, Kerber’s serving was proving impenetrable. Another love hold, a break, a hold to 15 and she was 5-1 to the good. Konta would take just one more game to leave Kerber to serve out the match, 6-2.
Kerber had made just 11 errors in the match to Konta’s 36, a statistic that was not lost on the Briton afterwards.
“She’s an incredibly tough player. I think she’s one of the, if not the most consistent player on the tour. And that’s no secret. She really makes every single ball possible and makes you work for every single point. She definitely played with that little bit more experience than I did.”
Konta, however, as is her mental approach these days, remained determined to take the positives from what has been a ground-breaking run for the Briton—she will break into the top 30 next week: “At this level you’re constantly being tested.
“Whoever you’re playing, your limits are constantly being pushed. I’m really happy how I was able to keep pushing my threshold, keep gaining lots of new experiences, and just keep improving.”
Kerber will also break new ground in the rankings, as she is expected to rise to a new high of No4 next week. But first, she has one of the most unenviable tasks in tennis, a title bout against world No1 Serena Williams.
The top seed, since her first-round battle against the highest unseeded player in the draw, Camila Giorgi, has cruised through, dropping no more than five games in a match, even against No5 Maria Sharapova in the quarters and, it turned out, against No4 Agnieszka Radwanksa in the semis.
Williams raced through the first set in stunning style, cranking up 18 winners to just four errors, and was almost flawless at the net, too: 10-11. Radwanska, who came into the match on a 10-0 streak after winning in Shenzhen a fortnight ago, has never beaten Williams in eight attempts, and had only ever won one set from the defending champion, but even so, her seven points in the opening 6-0, 20-minute set made a surprisingly low tally.
Radwanska got some traction in the second set, winning her first game in the opener, but losing her next serve to go 1-2 down. The Pole broke back to level at 3-3, and survived a break point in a long, intense seventh game, but from there, Williams opened up in scintillating style, holding with two aces and two forehand winners for 4-4, breaking her opponent, and rushing for the winning line, 6-4, with a love hold—with three aces and volley winner—to reach her 26th Grand Slam singles final.
Remarkably, Williams came into Melbourne, where she is a six-time champion, having not played a tournament since her semi-final exit from the US Open last summer. She pulled out of her only warm-up event, the Hopman Cup, with injury, but has cut through the draw here like a hot knife through butter. She commented on her long break—and her return to form: “Everyone was nervous for me that I was taking four months off, but this is a big year for me, and I wanted to improve and do better. That’s what I did.”
Of her final, where she attempts to match Steffi Graf’s all-time record 22 Grand Slams, she said: “It’s going to be tough no matter what; whenever you’re stepping onto the court, I feel like everyone plays their hardest when they play me. I’m going to be ready and whatever happens, happens.
“I’m really excited just to be in the final; I can’t say that I thought I would have been in this final after taking so much time off.”
Williams leads Kerber 5-1 in previous matches, with that win for the German coming back in 2012.