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Column Copyright 2018 by Paul Fein

Angelique is Magnifique

The art of lawn tennis is control and restraint and hitting the ball where the other guy ain’t.” — Harry Hopman, legendary Australian Davis Cup captain.

In a topsy-turvy tournament filled with surprises, Angelique Kerber flipped the women’s script one last time. All top ten seeds had tasted defeat before the quarterfinals for the first time in Wimbledon history. Certainly Serena Williams would restore order in the final, as nearly everyone expected.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion likes to refer to herself with superlatives, such as Superwoman. Merely being called the greatest female athlete makes her bristle; she considers herself “the greatest athlete,” period. Merely beating her opponents isn’t sufficient. During Wimbledon she stressed that she must beat them “emphatically.” When she finishes off foes with her trademark fire and fury, the prideful American sometimes raises her muscular right arm and points her forefinger skyward to remind everyone she’s still No. 1, even if her ranking indicates otherwise.

But even the supremely egotistical Serena occasionally admits she’s human. After defeating Julia Görges 6-2, 6-4, in the Wimbledon semifinals, she conceded to the BBC, “This is not inevitable.” Serena talked about the trauma of undergoing multiple surgeries following the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia last September, noting “I almost didn’t make it to be honest. I remember I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox, so it’s definitely not normal for me to be in a Wimbledon final.”

Maybe not “normal” given this Wimbledon was only her fourth tournament since winning the Australian Open while pregnant 17 months ago. Maybe not “inevitable” either given the chaos in the women’s draw. But 36-year-old Serena had overcome adversity so often in her illustrious 22-year pro career—from the tragic murder of her half-sister to her parents’ divorce to assorted career-threatening illnesses and injuries. Why not yet again?

While Serena was bidding to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 major titles and become the first mother to hoist the Wimbledon ladies’ trophy since Evonne Goolagong in 1980, Angie was fashioning quite a comeback of her own. In 2016, she catapulted from a solid top-10 player to a champion, capturing the Australian and US Opens, reaching the final at Wimbledon and the WTA Finals, and winning an Olympic silver medal. In 2017, though, she couldn’t cope with the fame and expectations. Euphoria turned into disappointment. Kerber won no tournaments and plummeted to No. 21.

Her fortune changed yet again this season. With new coach Wim Fissette coaxing her to play more aggressively, she improved her form and results. The 30-year-old German made the Australian Open semifinals, losing a 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 heartbreaker to No. 1 Simona Halep after holding match point. Angie also made the French Open quarters, won Sydney, and reached the semis at Dubai and Eastbourne, a Wimbledon tune-up event on grass.

Their comebacks and their thirty-something ages aside, Serena and Angie have little in common. Serena is brash and controversial; Angie reserved and well-liked. Serena is a righty power player with a booming serve; Angie is a consistent lefty with no dominating shot. Serena pals around with the rich, famous, and royal, such as the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, who sat in the Royal Box at Wimbledon. Angie avoids the limelight and likes to hang out with friends, commoners as they would say in England. She and her mother even waited for the public bus after her semifinal victory.

Unlike many Tour players, Angie is not intimidated by either Serena’s ferocious power or imperious persona. Although Serena led their rivalry 6-2, they had split their most recent matches in 2016. Kerber prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the Australian final, while Serena avenged that loss 7-5, 6-3 in the Wimbledon final. The pundits almost unanimously picked Serena to win this eagerly anticipated final at The Championships (Wimbledon’s real name). But the case for the underestimated Kerber was strong. Not only had she achieved far superior results this year than Serena, who had played just seven matches, but she also faced and conquered a vastly tougher Wimbledon draw. The 11th-seeded Kerber defeated Next Gen standouts No. 18 Naomi Osaka, former top-tenner Belinda Bencic, No. 14 Daria Kasatkina, and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. Incredibly, the 25th-seeded Serena encountered just one player ranked in the top 50, No. 13 Görges, who was knocked out in the first round in the five previous Wimbledons.

Kerber, who is nothing if not smart, won the toss and chose to receive despite the fact Serena possesses the greatest women’s serve in history. Why the counter-intuitive decision? “I was quite nervous before the match,” Kerber admitted later. She didn’t want her vulnerable serve broken to start the biggest match of her resurgent year. Equally important, Serena was still far from being “match-tough,” especially against elite competition. She likely was equally, if not more, nervous.

Pressure on Serena

As the players walked onto Centre Court carrying a bouquet of flowers (a quaint Wimbledon tradition), it was the unsmiling Serena, winner 23 of her previous 29 major finals, who appeared extremely tense. “Kerber is playing just as well as she did two years ago when she was No. 1,” said all-time great Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst. “The pressure is all on Serena Williams.”

Serena quickly succumbed to the pressure by making four unforced errors and losing her serve in the opening game. An ominous sign because in each of her six previous matches, Serena had not committed more than 11 errors.

But would—could—Kerber continue to extract errors from heavy-hitting Serena? Would Kerber’s ability to retrieve, change pace, absorb power, use clever angles, deceptively change the direction of her Serena’s shots, and counter-punch offset her weak second serve and a barrage of big shots from Serena?

Serena won three straight games to go ahead 3-2. In the fifth game of the set, Serena kicked a wide serve for a 88-mph ace and a 125-mph rocket for another ace. The latter serve was faster than any serve Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal hit during their epic 5-hour, 15-minute semifinal.

But Serena’s performance deteriorated from that brief apex. She lost her serve with a highly unusual two straight double faults in the seventh game. Then she lost it again with three unforced backhand errors and a bad volley mistake to give away the first set, 6-3. The greatest women’s server in history had already had her serve broken three times, shocking also because in her six previous matches, Serena’s serve was broken a total of seven times.

Watching the ineptitude of a tennis legend is always cringe-inducing. In a quick poll taken by ESPN.com Courtcast, 59% of respondents predicted Serena would come back to win the match. They would be proven overly optimistic.

The hyper-consistent Kerber, who had returned a terrific 88% of opponents’ serves before the final, had little trouble with Serena’s. And age had also slowed Serena’s feet. “Serena is not moving as well as she had before,” pointed out Evert. “She’s late [arriving], and she’s not getting down to the ball.”

Serena also appeared to have lost her mojo. For inspiration, she would have done well to recall an early lesson she learned from her mother, Oracene Price. When Serena and Venus were young, Oracene took them on a trip to Africa. Watching a pride of lions there, Oracene told them the lioness is not just a protector but also an aggressor. She told Serena and Venus to be like a lioness.

In the second set, Kerber kept holding her serve and waiting for Serena to self-destruct again. It happened with Serena serving at 2-3. When Serena indecisively settled for a half-volley, Kerber ripped a forehand passing shot to earn a double break point at 15-40. Two points later, Kerber proved she’s more than a brilliant counter-puncher. With a Nadal-like sprint and leap, she pounded a spectacular forehand winner down the line. That service break for a 4-2 lead would be all Kerber needed because she comfortably held serve the next two times at 15 and at 30.

After Serena missed a backhand service return on championship point, an exultant Kerber fell on her back on the lush grass and covered her eyes with her hands. The surprisingly easy 6-3, 6-3 triumph made Kerber only the second player—the other being Venus Williams—to beat the great Serena Williams twice in Grand Slam finals. The feat also gave her a title at three different majors with only a French Open title needed for a rare career Grand Slam. Interestingly, the last four Grand Slam champions—Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Halep and Kerber—have won because of consistency, not power. And parity has become more pronounced than ever with an unbelievable seven different winners at the last seven majors.

Kerber was born in 1988, the year German superstar Steffi Graf captured tennis’ only “Golden Slam”—the four majors and an Olympic gold medal. In 1996, Kerber watched Graf win her seventh and last Wimbledon, and she idolized her. “When I was a little kid, I always dreamed of winning Wimbledon,” she told ESPN.

About her late-career renaissance, Kerber explained, "I think without 2017 I couldn't win this tournament. I think I learned a lot from last year, with all the expectations, all the things I went through. I learned so many things about myself, about the things around, how to deal with this, how to make my day schedule. I learned I have to practice. I have to take some time off. I learned about handling the pressure. It is a game. And I love this game. And I’ve tried to enjoy every moment on court this year. I showed everyone that I can come back.”

Besides adding power to her serve and playing more aggressively overall, Kerber improved her mental game. On her earlier and costly tendency to become temperamental and lose focus, Kerber acknowledged, “Changing wasn’t so easy because I’m a very emotional person. It took a while. It’s a process. I know I have to stay cool and relaxed. I can deal with the pressure better at 30 than at 21.”

Kerber sure dealt with the pressure in the final, committing just five unforced errors—compared to Serena’s 24—in 101 total points. While she kept her nerves in check, “Serena froze a bit,” as ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez noted. This highly efficient performance reinforced Kerber’s reputation as a clutch big-match competitor, as it marked her third triumph in four major finals, two coming against Serena.

Other than absurdly claiming that Kerber “played out of her mind,” Serena’s post-final comments were gracious. To her credit, Serena accentuated the positives despite her dismal defeat. “It was a great opportunity for me,” she said. "You know, I didn’t know a couple of months ago where I was, where I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back. It was such a long way to see light at the end of the road kind of. So I think these two weeks have really showed me that, ‘Okay, I can compete.’ Obviously I can compete for the long run in a Grand Slam. I can, you know, come out and be a contender to win Grand Slams.”

 contender, yes. But Serena’s glorious time at the top may finally be over. Time waits for no man—or woman.

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