It wasn’t Italy’s Roberta Vinci that slayed the giant. This time, it was Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
Showing no signs of intimidation from the get-go, the 28 year-old Kerber absorbed any and all power that Serena Williams gave her. Kerber gained an early break in the first set off the Williams serve. Despite a break back by Williams to make it 3-3, Kerber broke her again for a 4-3 lead.
As soon as Serena made that UFE at 1-0, 15-30, Kerber loosened up and played some liberated ball.— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) January 30, 2016
And she would never look back.
Winning the first set 6-4 at love, Kerber’s game plan was simply to get the ball back over the net, sometimes playing some wicked angles. It was the first set Williams had lost all tournament. 23 unforced errors, 12 winners and 0 aces for Serena compared to 3, 1 and 4, respectively for Kerber.
The pressure was on Williams throughout the first set. Watching Williams early, the movement she displayed in her previous six matches was absent. Footwork had been key to Williams’ dominance this tournament and it seemed to elude her in the Finals.
But it wasn’t just footwork. Unforced errors, facial strain and a load of "COME ON’s" were early indicators that Serena wasn’t in top form. The one thing that had set Serena apart for so long, her mental focus, was nowhere to be found as it had shifted solely to Kerber’s side of the court.
The second set was much different. Serena got an early break at 3-1. Serving 0-30, Serena was able to dig herself out of that hole to go up 4-1, including her first ace of the match. Her footwork improved in the second set, which helped Williams even up the match.
Then the third set happened.
Both players took a 5 minute break after the second, allowing each to refocus and regroup. It was much needed time away for Kerber as she was able to jump out to an early 2-0 lead, including a break of Serena’s serve at love.
Williams would fight back with a break and hold of her own. At 2-2, 30-all with Kerber serving, a second serve was there for the taking only to be sent long by Williams. A tough first serve by Kerber that Williams had no answer for and it was 3-2 for the German challenger.
Up 3-2, four chances to break eluded Kerber. Then on the fifth Kerber did what she had done all match long. She hit a return and forced a Williams error. A 10+ minute sixth game became the decider. Williams had no answer.
These misses and passive plays on swing volleys = sadly reminiscent of that US Open defeat.— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 30, 2016
Up 5-3 in the third, Kerber had the match on her racket. The pressure of a possible first Grand Slam title proved too much for her as Williams broke back to make it 4-5. But what haunted Serena all night long, errors and poor serving, ended up giving Kerber the title and Serena her first loss in an Australian Open Final.
No American woman has lost to a European woman in the Australian Open final since 1992 (won last eight such matches).— Chris Skelton (@ChrisSkelton87) January 30, 2016
Make no mistake though. Angelique Kerber won this match just as much as Serena Williams lost it. She had said before the match that she had nothing to lose. That mentality elevated her game to a level she had never displayed before. She played freely and confidently and showed the world #1 that this was a different year.
Last year in the US Open, Roberta Vinci showed how to beat the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. This year Angelique Kerber showed that Williams’ U.S. Open loss was no fluke.
Williams’ play in Melbourne through the semi-finals had us dreaming of a new beginning for her. It was a clean slate, an opportunity to wipe away the sting of that U.S. Open loss. But it's a dream deferred for the moment. Could it be that the Williams’ dominance we have grown accustomed to is now officially gone or is this simply a new hurdle that she must fight to overcome?
Serena couldn’t channel that next level tonight. Her serve, her court coverage, her net play and her footwork wouldn’t let her.
Neither would Angelique Kerber.