Losing her closest Slam final to date, Serena has plenty to ponder
Angelique Kerber's win over Serena Williams in the Australian Open women's final was, to use Kerber's own words, a "dream match." But for Williams, it will add new urgency to her mission to catch and surpass Steffi Graf as the all-time Open era Grand Slam singles champion.
As Williams was denied the 22nd Slam title that would bring her level with Graf, it suddenly looks to be a very interesting year. The French Open is almost four full months away and played on red clay, the surface on which Williams has been the least prolific. That gives her plenty of time to think -- and plenty to think about.
And Kerber's 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win will stand out as one of the best Australian Open finales -- and the most competitive of the five Grand Slam finals Serena has lost.
In 2001, Serena's older sister, Venus, was the No. 4 seed at the US Open, but she was the defending champion. Serena, just 19, was seeded No. 10. But they collectively tore through the draw. Serena defeated No. 6 seed Justine Henin, No. 3 Lindsay Davenport and No. 1 Martina Hingis in consecutive matches to reach the final, while Venus knocked off No. 5 Kim Clijsters and No. 2 Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Unfortunately, the awkwardness of the situation (it was the first Grand Slam final between sisters in 117 years) put a strain on both sisters, but they put on a remarkable show despite the muted and ultimately anticlimactic ending. Venus won, 6-2, 6-4.
At Wimbledon in 2004, Serena Williams faced 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, who was playing in her first Grand Slam final. Williams had already locked up six majors, including the two previous Wimbledon titles. As the reserved, largely British crowd looked on in stunned silence, 13th-seeded Sharapova won the first set in a mere 30 minutes, 6-1.
Williams rallied and earned a second-set break for 4-2, but Sharapova broke right back, went on break again in the ninth game and closed it out 6-4. Williams has been making Sharapova pay for that win ever since.
The 2008 Wimbledon final featured another sisters clash. At the outset, Venus' prospects weren't encouraging. At No. 7, she was seeded one notch below Serena, who had won the previous five Grand Slam finals they played, including one at each of the four majors. Call it a Sister Slam.
But something about Centre Court always seems to soothe the sisters and enable them to play fairly relaxed tennis. The fact that both women have great serves that facilitate quick points probably helps them focus on the task at hand. Venus won this battle of atomic serves, claiming 75 percent of her first-serve points in an entertaining, competitive 7-5, 6-4 match.
In some ways, the 2011 US Open final between Serena Williams and Sam Stosur prefigured Saturday's loss to Kerber. Williams looked no less formidable rolling into that match than she did in Melbourne -- in fact, it might have been her best run up to a final. Serena lost no sets and a grand total of just 29 games in her six matches, which included wins over Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki.
Unlike Kerber, Stosur had been to a Grand Slam final before she faced Williams (Stosur lost to Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final the previous year). An established, abundantly talented, top-10 player, Stosur had always struggled with confidence while under pressure.
But contrary to all expectations, Stosur played with great poise against Williams, who had trouble dialing in her game, and won with shocking ease, 6-2, 6-3.
Kerber's distinction on this short list: She won the closest match that Serena ever lost in a Grand Slam final. And it might have ramifications.
For most of the past two weeks, the Williams theme has been the lack of drama accompanying her matches. It was a welcome respite from her struggles of 2015. It was smooth sailing for her right up to the final, but it now seems the hunt for No. 22 may take her through turbulent waters filled with dangerous rivals.
When Kerber was informed in her news conference that Williams had won all eight previous Grand Slam finals that went to three sets, Kerber said, "I didn't know this. But when we went to the third set, I told myself actually, 'OK, you can do it, as well.' I played a lot of three-set matches in the last few years. I won a lot of these. I was actually more confident to go into the third set."
Will Kerber become an unexpected X factor in 2016, perhaps even a recurring obstacle to Williams? That's hard to say, but as Williams told the media after the match, "I think it's good to know that if I want to win some tournaments, I have to play better."