Kerber opens the door

Tennis : The German's battling win over Serena Williams underlined the fact that the American can be beaten

Kerber opens the door

Angelique Kerber leapt into murky surroundings last Sunday, just hours after she became the first German since 1999 to win a Grand Slam tennis title by defeating world number one Serena Williams at the Australian Open.

The 28-year-old's plunge into the Yarra River, result of a bet with Eurosport journalist Matthias Stach, was an apt metaphor for what her life now holds. She is now the world number two and her victory also painted a large target on her back by proving that Williams was not invincible, though she was quick to acknowledge the American's powers were not on the wane.

"I think against Serena it's not so easy to win. You must play really your best tennis to beat her," Kerber said. "I think it's still tough to beat Serena. But of course I think that a lot of new and good players are coming. They will challenge Serena. They will challenge me. They will challenge all the good players. Let's see what happens in the next few months."

Kerber's victory would undoubtedly not force a seismic shift in the women's game. Many of the world's top women are power hitters and the German is among them. However, by producing superb defence along the baseline chasing down Williams' blistering groundstrokes and forcing the American to play one extra shot, she proved the 21-times Grand Slam winner was fallible.

That resulted in unforced errors, something Williams had not been forced to do through her run to a seventh Australian Open final. Williams produced 23 unforced errors in the first set of the final, which gave Kerber all of the momentum she needed, knowing that battling back from a set down would be tough against one of the game's best closers. Above all, with her pulse and thoughts surely racing, Kerber was able to finish off her masterwork -- the toughest task in a sport with no game clock and no time limit.

"I was happy that I won the first set because it was better to win against her the first set than the second set," she added. "I was actually more confident going into the third set (and) I told myself actually, 'okay, you can do it'."

That mental toughness has been a long time in the making, stemming from a poor run in 2011 when she suffered 11 successive first-round losses. A surprise run to her first Grand Slam final at the US Open in 2011 while ranked 92nd in the world had helped turn it around. Since 2012, when she clinched her first WTA title, she has been ranked inside the top-10.

Winning also breeds confidence, she added. "Here it's changed everything," she said. "You must be relaxed and you must really believe in yourself. This is actually the biggest thing what I learned in these two weeks, to go for it. Of course you will have some losses in your career and also tough moments still. But you must believe that you can do it."

Courtesy of the last two Grand Slam tournaments, we now know that there truly are no guarantees in women's tennis (other than the kind the stars get at minor tournaments). How else to interpret last year's US Open, where unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci stopped Williams' bid for a true Grand Slam in the semifinals? How to parse Zhang Shuai -- 0-14 in Grand Slam singles matches -- beating the No 2 seed, Simona Halep, in the first round at this Australian Open?

Targetting the biggest scalp only gets easier when someone went for it and survived before you. (Being the second one in your group to jump off the tall rock into the lake does not pose quite the same mental challenge as taking the leap first.)

In September, after Vinci's upset, her Italian compatriot Flavia Pennetta became a first-time Grand Slam singles champion at age 33 and soon retired. Speaking before the Australian Open, Pam Shriver, the former US Open finalist who is now an analyst, suggested that Pennetta's success would give other veteran players big ideas.

"I think it's going to change the top players' belief and get them thinking that there's an opportunity for them as well," Shriver said.

Fast forward to Saturday where Kerber won her first major at age 28, making her 11 years older than Williams was when she won her first at the 1999 US Open.

As the seventh seed, Kerber was not nearly as much of an outsider in Melbourne as Vinci or Pennetta were in New York. But this was Kerber's 33rd appearance in a Grand Slam tournament, ranking her seventh on the Open-era list for the longest wait before a singles title.

Pennetta, whose only major title came in her 49th appearance, ranks first on that list, followed by Marion Bartoli, who won Wimbledon in 2013 in her 47th Grand Slam appearance, shortly before retiring.

Trend alert? Absolutely, and pro tennis, an insular world, is a place where belief is contagious, particularly when Williams is not slamming aces and service winners as Williams can slam aces and service winners.

"If Serena is not getting free points, her anxiety builds, and the points get long, and if the points get longer, that serves Angie," said Rennae Stubbs, an Australian analyst. "And as the anxiety rises in Serena, she gets beatable."

Kerber had raised her own game, changing her diet, dropping some weight and shoring up her vulnerable serve in the off-season.

"She mixed her serve really well tonight," said Stubbs, noting that the left-handed Kerber used to almost never hit a second serve wide in the deuce court, allowing the opposition plenty of preparation time. But she deprived Williams of time and solid footing again and again. She played deeply convincing defence but still attacked the openings. She hit drop shot winners under maximum pressure and came up with squat-shot forehands to reboot rallies after Williams blasted returns at her quick feet.

To sum up, she played her best tennis in the match she needed it most, and the reasonable assumption now is that the more times women like Pennetta and Kerber can break through, the easier it will get for everybody else trying to find some sunshine in Williams' shadow.

Agencies & NYT

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