“I was one leg on the plane to Germany”
That is how Angelique Kerber later described the moment, on a hot January day in Melbourne, she faced match point and first round elimination from the Australian Open for the second successive year.
With another brief stay in Melbourne looking likely and only two semi-finals, one an unlikely run at Flushing Meadows when ranked 92 in the world, to show for her ten years of Grand Slam play, even Kerber might have scoffed if you’d suggested she was destined to dethrone Serena Williams as World Number 1.
A day after her 28th birthday the counter punching German saved the match point and recovered, not just to win her first round match, but to complete a most amazing year of Grand Slam performances. The remainder of her fortnight at Melbourne Park was electric, booking a debut Final appearance without dropping another set.
Standing across the net from her in the Final was one of the most dominant figures in world sport, both physically and figuratively, Serena Williams. The World Number 1 and winner of four of the previous five Grand Slams had reigned over women’s tennis since winning the US Open as a 17-year-old in 1999, receiving $75mil in prizemoney, winning an astonishing 86% of her matches, 4 Olympic Gold Medals and 69 titles.
Then there is the small matter of her record in Grand Slam Finals. 17 years after winning her first US Open, she had only tasted defeat in Finals 4 times. Apart from big sister Venus, only two women – Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur – had been able to better the champion in the matches that matter most.
Steffi Graf loomed large over both players as they took the court at Rod Laver Arena. With victory, Williams would join the German champion on 22 Grand Slam titles. While for Kerber, who grew up idolising her countrywoman and joked it was her national duty to defend her idol’s record, a win would make her the first German since Graf to claim the Daphne Ackhurst Cup.
Rather than wilt under the pressure of the situation Kerber revelled in it. Much like Stosur did against Williams in the 2011 US Open Final, the finals greenhorn was almost faultless as she threw everything at her opponent. In the face of Kerber’s clean play and barrage of winners, Williams faltered. Although still able to hit an incredible number of winners as she chased the match, their cost in unforced errors was too high and Kerber prevailed in three sets.
With her victory, Kerber leapt both into the Yarra River ala Jim Courier after his victories in the 1990’s (Something we at The Sportress strongly dissuade anyone emulating) and to a career high ranking of World Number 2. Although now adjudged only behind Williams in World Tennis, not everyone was convinced of the German’s ascension to the upper echelon of players. Doubts that, despite Kerber bristling at, only grew after Kerber’s first round exit at Roland Garros. The French Open also ended in disappointment for Williams. Her hopes of equalling Graf’s Grand Slam Haul again thwarted in the Final, this time by Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza.
Kerber and Williams again locked horns on the green grass of Wimbledon, dropping only one set between them on the way to another tournament decider; the first time two women contested two major finals in a single season since 2006.
As she had in Melbourne, Kerber took the match right up to Williams. Serena wasn’t going to be denied for a third time in a row and edged Kerber in a gripping match.
The pair both travelled to Rio in search for Gold, Williams chasing an unprecedented third successive title. Kerber carried her hot hand to the final but surprisingly found herself matched up against Monica Puig after Williams had been eliminated in the third round. Despite favouritism, the German had to settle for Silver with Puig prevailing in a tight three-setter and claiming Puerto Rico’s first ever Olympic Gold Medal.
Following Rio, Kerber had an opportunity to wrench the number one ranking from Williams if she won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. She fell one match short, thwarted in the final by Czech 15th Seed Karolína Plíšková. The result ensuring Serena would retain ranking long enough to equal Graf’s record of 186 continuous weeks a top the tennis world, ironically she would play a key role in ensuring Williams wouldn’t break it.
Entering the US Open, Kerber again had another chance to dethrone Williams atop the world rankings. Due vagaries produced by the rolling 52-week nature of the ranking calculations, as defending US Open Champion Williams would actually need to outperform Kerber to hold onto her crown and move past Graf and into sole possession of the record for most consecutive weeks at number one.
As the tournament progressed, the two again appeared on a collision course, both impressive as they marched into the semi-finals. Standing in the way of Kerber’s third Grand Slam Final was Caroline Wozniacki and waiting for Williams, fresh off her Western & Southern Open victory, Karolína Plíšková.
Plíšková was given very little chance of providing much more than hitting practice for Williams ahead of another trip to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the Final. The Australian Open Analytics (GIG) team using a complicated system measuring a player’s strength using all their career performance data, while weighting more recent performances and strength of opponent more heavily, calculated her chance of victory at 13%.
As any gambler would tell you, the smart ones anyway, the only true certainty in sport is its uncertainty and it proved so again on this day. Plíšková’s power caused Williams all end of troubles, as the biggest server in the women’s game her remarkable first serve percentage gave her an advantage she took full toll of. Williams, her power blunted, began to commit unforced errors as she tried ever harder to find a way past the young Czech.
This descent into error ultimately cost the champ, with a double fault on match point costing her the match and her hold on the number one ranking. 19 days after a Plíšková victory prevented Kerber ascending to number one, another enabled it. (If like me you love reading about probabilities, take a look at an analysis of how the GIG formula tracked Plíšková’s chances improve from 13% to victory as the match progressed here.
As the players entered the arena for the second semi-final the large crowd remained shocked and trying to come to grips with the ramifications of what they had just seen in the preceding match. Rather than Serena Williams awaiting the winner in the final as expected, a first time finalist sat in wait and No 2 seed Angelique Kerber entered the court, no longer the number 2 player in the world.
Kerber came out firing and jumped out to an early lead. Although Wozniacki recovered to fight the match out, she could not prevent a straight sets defeat. After entering 2016 having only reached two Grand Slam semi-finals, four slams later and Kerber had now reached her third final.
The final was a tight and gritty affair; Kerber took the early advantage punishing her Czech opponent’s early nerves to take the first set. After losing her grip on the match, dropping the second set and a break early in the third, the left-hander showed her champion qualities to win the last five games of the match. Her victory and second Grand Slam win complete when a Plíšková forehand could not clear the net. As she did upon claiming victory in Melbourne, Kerber fell onto her back in a seeming combination of elation, exhaustion and disbelief.
All three emotions were apparent again in her post match interview:
“It’s just amazing,” a beaming Kerber, told an adoring crowd after being handed the winner’s cheque of $US3.5 million ($A4.58 million).
“I won my second grand slam in one year. That’s the best of my career.”
“Actually just incredible.”
“When I was a kid I was always dreaming to be the number one player in the world and win grand slams and today is the day I won my second grand slam here, especially in New York. I’m the number one player on Monday.”
“All the dreams came true this year.”
Achieving her dream makes Kerber the 22nd player, since rankings have been in place, to arrive at the pinnacle of her sport. Her persistence and single mindedness reflected in the fact that she is the oldest player to claim the top ranking.
From an almost inglorious beginning to World Number 1 it has been a special 12 months from Angelique Kerber. Regardless of what else happens in 2016 or throughout the rest of her career, she will forever be able to claim to have been the world’s best player and ended Serena Williams’ 3-year reign as World Number One in becoming so.
Most players would give anything to be able to claim that.