A 25-year old left-handed German tennis player named Angelique Kerber had ended Serena Williams’ 19-match winning streak at the Cincinnati Masters back in 2012. She defeated then Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the next match before losing in the final. It was her breakthrough season. She won her first WTA title on tour (Open GDF Suez) reached the Wimbledon semis, the French quarters, and finished at Number 5 in the world.
In 2013, she ended at 9. She ended 2014 at 10 and 2015 at 10 as well – her fourth straight year in the top 10. She was, in many ways, the Tomas Berdych of the WTA tour – always hovering at the top, winning the smaller tournaments, going deep into the Majors before losing to favorites and higher-ranked players, but never really collapsing. The fourth round and her quarterfinal became her best friend – her exit point, but you’d always find her in the second week as part of the ‘best of the rest’.
She began 2016, her 12th year as a professional, in promising fashion. She reached the final of Brisbane, losing to Victoria Azarenka. She was down match point to Misaki Doi in the first round. Those are the margins; she could have been on the first flight home if she had lost the point, never getting an opportunity to capture the world’s imagination for 13 days after that.
Instead, Kerber, a bright-eyed 28-year ‘journeywoman’ on the tour proved that impossible is nothing, just like Flavia Penetta did at age 30 in New York last year. Unlike the Italian though, Kerber looked like she was ready to restart her career, not end it in a blaze of glory. She is ready to enter every tournament as one of the favorites, as World No. 2 (up from 6), and take on the pressure of facing the top seeds late into the tournament. She has earned this right – after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam History.
Angelique Kerber, who had won only eight titles previously, won her first Grand Slam Final by defeating possibly the greatest women’s tennis player of the modern era. In three pulsating sets, Kerber out-ran Williams and absorbed all the aggression the American could throw at her. She displayed great defensive skills from deep behind the court. She counter-punched from behind repeatedly and even defied expectations, especially after she let Serena come back from 2-5 to 4-5 in the final set, back on serve, till she broke the American to win it 6-4.
Williams didn’t play her best match, but in a way, her errors were caused by Kerber’s relentless returning. She made Williams make uncharacteristic mistakes, which was perhaps the only way to beat her.
Kerber doesn’t have a strong serve or a remarkable forehand and backhand. She does have remarkable temperament, and immense courage, to win her first Major final against a player who was one short of Steffi Graff’s 22 Grand Slams.
In the process, she helped her fellow German maintain her record for the time-being – only appropriate, considering the American’s solid stranglehold over the current generation.
34-year old Williams will go for many more trophies this year.
She could end the year as the most prolific women’s singles player of all time, too. But she will remember that she was made to work for these records. That she was, one Australian summer day back in January, made to remember why greatness is a steely cross to bear. And why graciousness, on its own, can be a more enduring champion legacy than all the domination and shiny trophies.