Australian Open

Kerber Follows in Graf's Footsteps

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Angelique Kerber celebrates winning the Australian Open.

Angelique Kerber played the match of her life on the biggest stage of her career to win the final of the Australian Open on Saturday, putting a German back among the world’s best tennis players.

Her Grand Slam victory over Serena Williams, the world’s number one women’s tennis player, catapults the 28-year-old German into number two in the global rankings after being seeded seventh. And it adds a new chapter to German Grand Slam history.

“I’m now a part of (Open-era) history,” Ms. Kerber told reporters two hours after she left the court, still visibly in disbelief after beating Ms. Williams 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in a thrilling two-hour match, her first-ever Grand Slam final. “A dream has come true, and I worked hard at it.”

The stunning win proved doubly-sweet for Germany as it prevented Ms. Williams from tying a German legend, Steffi Graf, for the most-ever Grand Slam victories.

The performance earned Ms. Kerber, known as Angie, the praise of another German occasionally referred to by the same name in the media – Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was quick to send her congratulations.

“With this victory, you have not only fulfilled your own biggest dream, but also, once again, 17 years after Steffi Graf, the hopes of millions of tennis fans of a German winning a Grand Slam tournament,” Ms. Merkel said in a statement. “It was fascinating to see how courageously and, with such nerves of steel, how you prevailed in the final against arguably the best player in the world. I hope you enjoy the victory fully and go on to many more.”

“It was fascinating to see how courageously and, with such nerves of steel, how you prevailed in the final against arguably the best player in the world.”

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

Those were words of praise and encouragement from one fighter to another. Ms. Merkel battled her way through the corridors of power in Berlin to become Germany’s first female chancellor. She knows exactly what it means to have “nerves of steel.”

In the final in Melbourne, Ms. Kerber was seen as the underdog whom many expected to be annihilated by the powerful American. No one could overlook the physical difference of the two players on center court, even if their height and weight figures aren’t that far apart.

On the one side of the net stood the slender German, 1.73 meters (5ft 8in) tall and weighing 68 kilograms (150 pounds), and on the other the mold-breaking muscular American at 1.75 meters and 70 kilograms.

Perhaps more telling, Ms. Williams had beaten Ms. Kerber in four of their previous five matches, and won 21 out of 25 Grand Slam finals since 1999.

With the clock ticking as retirement edges closer, the 34-year-old top seed had high hopes of tying Ms. Graf’s record tally of 22 major titles in the Open era.

But the left-handed Ms. Kerber arrived with an arsenal of tactics to dash those hopes. She earned her points by playing intelligently and coaxing Ms. Williams into errors.

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Steffi Graf won a total of 22 Grand Slam titles, the most by any woman. Source: AP

 

The German, born in Bremen to a German mother and Polish father, who was also her first coach, converted five of nine breaks points in the match. She finished with 13 unforced errors compared to her opponent’s 46, many of them committed at the net. The American also produced nearly as many double faults (6) as she did aces (7) and put only 53 percent of her first serves in play.

The statistics showed what everyone could plainly see: Despite her 25 previous major finals, Ms. Williams was the more anxious and tighter of the two players.

Seconds after her volley attempt flew long to hand the match to her German opponent, Ms. Williams walked across to the other side of the court to hug the newest member of the Grand Slam club. And speaking at the trophy presentation, after her first-ever defeat in an Australian Open final, the American told Ms. Kerber: “You did so well; you truly deserved it.”

Few will disagree. Ms. Kerber had an excellent 2015 season. Although she lost in the first round of the Melbourne tournament last year, she went on to win four tournaments – second only to Ms. Williams’ five. She has been among the world’s top 10 players for four years, with her previous results at a major being semifinals at Wimbledon in 2012 and the U.S. Open in 2011.

Ms. Kerber told reporters about a few practice sessions with Ms. Graf and how the German champ’s words of wisdom had been instrumental in her improved play. The two met last year in Las Vegas, where the 46-year-old lives with her husband, the former tennis pro Andre Agassi, and their two children.

“Steffi is a champion,” Ms. Kerber said. “She taught me to believe in myself. She was and still is my idol.”

“A Grand Slam winner was needed to make tennis popular again in Germany, and I’ve now done that.”

Angelique Kerber, Australian Open winner

Many may now hope to find parallels.

Even before her first Grand Slam victory in the French Open in 1987 at the age of 19, Ms. Graf was seen as a “Wunderkind,” a talented person, like fellow German Boris Becker, who two years earlier won the Wimbledon Grand Slam at just 17.

The two athletes became the darlings of the German press and ushered in a tennis boom in the country that lasted through the 1980s and 1990s.

That boom was halted in the 2000s as Germany failed to produce either male or female players that could repeat the dominance of Mr. Becker and Ms. Graf, who until Saturday were the last Germans to win a Grand Slam title, Ms. Graf in 1999 and Mr. Becker in 1996. The last German man to even reach a Grand Slam final was Rainer Schüttler in Melbourne in 2003.

But if Germans were fascinated by Ms. Graf and Mr. Becker because of their seemingly impenetrable style of play and personalities, they seem to respect Ms. Kerber for what she is – a gifted tennis player, a fierce fighter and a friendly, natural person.

Ms. Kerber now leads a colorful new batch of female tennis players that have the potential to make their mark on tennis’ biggest stage in the coming years.

Compatriot Sabine Lisicki reached the final of Wimbledon in 2013 and, until Saturday’s stunning victory, had been seen as Germany’s best hope of a future Grand Slam title. Anna-Lena Friedsam, just 22, was another German surprise in Melbourne who reached the fourth-round stage and is expected to climb up the world rankings in the coming years.

Even if Ms. Kerber will never be able to fill the big title shoes of Ms. Graf because of her mature tennis age, and even if she is not as media savvy as her German competitors Andrea Petkovic and Ms. Lisicki, she knows what her victory in Melbourne means for her homeland.

“A Grand Slam winner was needed to make tennis popular again in Germany,” she said in one of her many post-game interviews. “And I’ve now done that.”

 

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, who covers sports and politics. Christopher Cermak of Handelsblatt Global Edition contributed to this story. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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