Many eyes therefore turned to another former champion, a resurgent Victoria Azarenka, but few predicted it would be another woman entirely, one who had never made a Grand Slam final before, Angelique Kerber, who would beat both of them, Azarenka in the quarters, 6-3, 7-5, and then the mighty Williams herself.
For at the age of 34, Williams still tops the rankings by a clear margin after almost three straight years at No1. During that time, she has added eight Grand Slams to reach 21, claiming three of them during 2015, and ending her season with a remarkable 53-3.
Yet she came to Melbourne without a competitive match on her resume since her shock exit from the semis of the US Open. She did not even play a match in the Hopman Cup as she nursed a knee problem. Into the heat of competition, though, and targeting one of the biggest Open-era records in tennis, the 22 Grand Slams won by Steffi Graf, Williams performed.
She dismissed Camila Giorgi in the first round in what proved to be her toughest match of the week. Thereafter, she did not lose more than five games in a match—and that included two of the best in the world, No5 Maria Sharapova and No4 Agnieszka Radwanska. Now only one woman stood between her and a 22nd Major, her 70th career title.
The renaissance of 28-year-old No7 Angelique Kerber had become one of the stories of the tournament as she worked her way from saving match point in her opener to her first Grand Slam final.
As recently as last April, Kerber had won just one title in three years, and after a promising start in Sydney, had won only 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 wins on Birmingham’s grass and Stanford’s hard courts, her first four Premier titles. A good Asian swing took her to No5, and this year she used a final finish 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 Azarenka. And confidence shone out of her in a pre-final meeting with the media.
“I think right now I have the confidence to be a top-five player, I think I’ve grown in the last few years to be a top-10 player… You know, it feels good. I think I have shown everybody that I deserve it.”
It was clearly a liberating and exciting phase for a woman who looked physically fitter and faster than ever before: “Nothing to lose means I can go out there and try to play like I’m playing, without pressure. I will go out there to try to challenge [Williams] by playing good tennis. I know I won against her once, so I can beat her. But I must play the best I can.”
And she did just that, in a dazzling, focused, committed two hours of power tennis that showed not only a new mental toughness but a determination to take the attack to her opponent, to serve with variety and disguise, to combine pace and depth with angle to devastating effect. If few others thought she could beat Williams, she did not doubt it.
Williams looked ominous in the first game, a love hold with a serve-and-volley finish, but both the serving and volleying of the American would undermine her tennis for much of the match.
Come the third game, Williams began to tot up what would become an uncharacteristic tally of errors—23 in this set alone—as a long backhand gave away the break.
Williams broke back to level at 3-3, but Kerber was returning so well that Williams struggled to find any baseline rhythm or adjust her footwork. She double faulted and then netted a volley to concede the break, and the German continued to draw errors to hold 5-3. A netted forehand and backhand from Williams helped Kerber ease to a love hold and the set, 6-4. She had made just three errors, and Williams’ famed serving had not produced a single ace.
Williams dug deep, though, and reversed the balance of power. She landed her serve more reliably, reduced the errors to five, and pounded 16 winners. Her network, too, was more solid: 7-9 won compared with 4-10 in the first set. Kerber played a nervy third game—two double faults and a netted forehand—and Williams broke. The American held her advantage to the 6-3, 33-minute set.
Could Kerber, who was still playing impressive tennis, pressure Williams again? She began the third with an aggressive hold and, having thrilled the Rod Laver Arena with the best rally of the match—ended by a winning pass from Kerber—the German broke to love.
I’m really honoured to be in this final and to win it: my dream came true tonight
Just as before, Williams broke straight back, but the defending champion’s ball-striking blew hot and cold, now a winner, now an error. Kerber punished a poor drive volley from Williams in the fourth game, but the American found a rare ace to hold, 2-2. They were 67 points apiece, but as Kerber applied the pressure, the Williams errors proliferated again.
The sixth 11-minute game was a vital one: five break points, two double faults from Williams, the longest rally of the match, a stunning drop-shot winner from Kerber and finally the break. A love hold from Kerber and she was 5-2 up.
Williams never gave up, and broke back with some blistering forehand winners, only for the errors to fly again, and she found just two first serves in the eight points of the last game. Kerber took full advantage, and it earned a Grand Slam title, 6-4.
The two women embraced like old friends, and Kerber was the first to acknowledge her opponent: “I would like to say congratulations to Serena. You’re really an inspiration for so many people and young tennis players. You’ve created history. You’re a champion. You’re also an unbelievably great person. So congratulations to everything you’ve already done.”
She then referred to the match-point she had faced almost two weeks ago: “When I was match point down, I actually had one leg in the plane back to Germany. I got a second chance, and I took that chance to be here in the finals. I’m really honoured to be in this final and to win it: my dream came true tonight.”
The last German to win a Major was the woman whose name has loomed over women’s tennis—and over Williams—since she retired with 22 Grand Slams in 1999: Graf. And Williams, who won the first of her 21 Majors in that same year, will have to wait a little longer to match her.
For now, a joyous and tear-stained Kerber could enjoy her most memorable tournament, which began with her 28th birthday and ends with the knowledge that she will rise to a career-high No2 in the world.