No Storybook Ending for Serena Williams
The focus has understandably been on Serena Williams’s comeback this season. She was the tennis superstar returning from childbirth with Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles in her sights. She was the one showing the way, at age 36, for working mothers and older athletes to keep striving for more.
But Angelique Kerber’s comeback has some lessons for the wider world as well: about persistence, about overcoming weaknesses by developing your strengths, and about sticking to your very fine game plan in a Wimbledon final against an opponent of superior power and experience.
Kerber struggled last season after winning two Grand Slam titles in 2016 and moving up to the No. 1 ranking. But at 30, she has made an emphatic return to the top, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open in January and then winning the trophy she has long wanted most by defeating Williams, 6-3, 6-3, on Saturday.
“No way,” said Kerber as she stared at her name on the board of champions inside the clubhouse after the match. “That was always a dream of mine.”
Williams has spoken about the delights of playing freely with nothing to lose during her matches at Wimbledon this year, but on Saturday she played and sounded like a champion who was feeling the pressure, some of it self-imposed.
She finished with 24 unforced errors and 23 winners, struggled at the net and failed to dominate with her imposing serve as Kerber broke her four times and lost her own serve just once.
Kerber played a marvelous match. Williams, focused on competing for a greater cause, did not.
“To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today, and I tried,” Williams said, tearing up in her post-match interview as the Centre Court crowd cheered to offer its support.
Williams played — and won — the 2017 Australian Open while two months pregnant, but she did not play again on tour until 13 months later. She gave birth to her daughter, Olympia, on Sept. 1, 2017, and suffered complications after her cesarean section, including a pulmonary embolism.
Less than a year later, she was in the final at Wimbledon, which she has won seven times. But she was unable to extend her 20-match winning streak at the All England Club. Her last defeat in singles here was against Alizé Cornet in the third round in 2014.
I think Angie reacted well on it,” her coach, Wim Fissette, said. “She didn’t take it personal or she was not irritated by it, just continued to play her game and focus just on herself.”
Kerber made only five unforced errors in the match. But she was also bold when she had to be on the grass that suits her flat strokes and taste for low-bouncing balls.
“I feel Angie started the tournament a bit slow and more with her older game, with just running and fighting,” Fissette said. “And after the second round she decided that, ‘With this tennis, I’m not going to win. So I have to play my offensive tennis, especially when I need it.’”
Against Williams, she won the first set with her signature shot: a forehand winner down the line. And when Kerber served for the match, Williams threw up a high defensive shot at 30-30 that landed deep, a shot that required Kerber to generate the pace. She did not shrink from the responsibility. She coolly nailed another forehand down the line that landed on the opposite baseline with a puff of chalk for another winner.
When Williams lost the next point, the final point, with a backhand return into the net, Kerber dropped her racket, pitched forward onto her knees and began to cry as she lay on the grass and the dirt.
She and Williams soon met on Kerber’s side of the net for an extended embrace.
This is becoming a Grand Slam tradition, this contrast of styles. And Kerber has now won two of their three duels in major finals: defeating Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final, losing to Williams in the 2016 Wimbledon final and winning on Saturday.
Kerber, who also won the United States Open in 2016, owns titles at three of the four Grand Slam events, lacking only the French Open.
Williams has won all four majors at least three times, but, for now, her total remains at 23 — one short of Court’s record.
“It’s a huge thing for her, coming back after the last few months to being in the final,” Kerber said. “For sure she was trying to do everything to beat me today, but I’m sure she will take her next Grand Slam and she will make history for sure.”
Fissette, who has now coached five players who have beaten Williams, said he felt her relatively easy draw, in which she faced no seeded players in the first five rounds, might have made it difficult for her to find the necessary gear on Saturday.