Saturday, January 30, 2016

2016 AUS OPEN: Kerber Shocks Serena To Win 1st Major Title

Defying my predictions and confounding history, Angelique Kerber outlasted Serena Williams 6-4 3-6 6-4 to win her first major title, at the 2016 Australian Open. Serena was aiming to match Steffi Graf's career total of 22 major titles while Kerber was aiming to become the first German player since Graf to win a major title. Serena was 21-4 in major finals and had only ever lost to three women in major finals (Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur). Kerber was match point down in the very first round of the tournament but after coming through that she was able to play her very best tennis calmly and effectively and after getting a dream draw was able to come back from a huge deficit against Victoria Azarenka and continue that momentum to reach her first major final against Serena and win it! Now that's two consecutive majors where we have had first time slam winners. First Flavia Pennetta did it in New York last September and now 28-year-old Kerber is the champion in Melbourne.

How The Match Was Won
Serena had not dropped a set going into her 7th Australian Open final, the first time she had ever done that, and since she had won all previous six finals in Melbourne this was viewed as a positive omen. However, what happened when the final began was that Serena started nervously and was broken quickly. This was a slight surprise, but since it had also happened against Maria Sharapova most fans didn't worry and fully expected Serena to right the ship quickly. She did come back and evened the set at 3-all. Then surprisingly, Serena got broken again and Kerber's improved serve was able to carry her to take the first set in the face of  nearly two dozen unforced errors from her opponent and (ominously) no aces.

Surprisingly, we then discovered that Serena has only won 2 of 6 grand slam finals where she loses the first set, although she had never previously lost a 3-set major final (8-0). So, the key thing to do is win the first set when playing Serena in a final (because it usually means that she is having a very bad day and may actually go down in straight sets).

Serena finally started serving a bit better in the second set, but she never really punished Kerber's second serve like it deserved. However, she was able to get a break early and rushed out to a 4-1 lead, which she was able to maintain to take the middle set 6-3. (Kerber did well to hold after being down 2-5, 30-all to force Serena to serve out the second set and earn the right to serve first in the 3rd.)

The third set was one of the most compelling sets of tennis on the women's game in a really, really long time. Kerber hit 12 winners and only 3 unforced errors while Serena hit 19 winners and 18 unforced errors. Serena fell down 0-2 but was able to battle back to even the score at 2-all and after Kerber held the two played an intense 10-minute, 5-deuce game that Serena lost to go down 2-4 in the final set. Kerber was again able to hold despite not serving well (she was 56% first serves in for the match and won 60% of first serves points and 58% of second serve points, all stats in which she surpassed Serena today.)

Amazingly, despite being down 2-5 in the final set, Serena was able to come back and get back on serve, and she had a game point serving at 4-5, 40-30 but she missed that first serve and hit a very weak second serve which Kerber pummeled down the line for a winner to get to deuce. After a long rally, Serena went for a crosscourt winner but hit the top of the tape and set up championship point. Serena lost this point on a volley error (it was an easy volley that sailed well over the baseline).

Overall, a really great match. Serena was nervous, and frankly had the wrong game plan to come to net in an attempt to win points. Kerber was too fast and her lefty spin makes volleying difficult and it showed with Serena only making 15 of 32 net points. However, I'm happy to see Serena so fot so early in the year and I'm confident that if she stays healthy all year Serena will still reach Steffi's total of 22 titles this year (and probably end her career with 24 or 25). It takes the pressure off the rest of her year, so she should be extra motivated to get 22 in either Paris, Wimbledon (more likely) or New York (in addition to more Gold in Rio).

Kerber will move up to World #2 when the rankings come out on Monday, bumping down Simona Halep to #3 and elbowing out Sharapova out of the Top 5 as Radwanska and Muguruza round out the top 5. Amusingly, Pennetta is still in the Top 10 at #7 even though she retired at the end of 2015! I think it will be tough to end the year at #2 but I do expect her to remain in the Top 5 and to see Azarenka return to the Top 5 by the end of the year.

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