While Serena Williams will be contending her 26th Grand Slam singles final on Saturday in Melbourne, her opponent, Angelique Kerber, will be playing her very first. It all could have been so different… in her very first match of the tournament, Kerber was on the brink of defeat, staring down a match point against Misaki Doi. Kerber somehow scrapped through that match and has since enjoyed a relatively routine run to the final, not dropping a set. When a player can survive such a match, it can often make them stronger in the tournament. The last three Australian Open finals have featured a player who saved match point(s) on their route through the draw (h/t to @KateSomeWrit on Twitter).
Kerber’s previous best at the Slams were semi-final showings at the US Open (l. to Sam Stosur, 2011) and Wimbledon (l. to Agnieszka Radwanska, 2012). The difference this time round against Johanna Konta is that she was the clear favourite by ranking. There were question marks of whether she could deal with this kind of pressure but Kerber played a very solid match, hitting few winners (14) but even fewer unforced errors (11) to win, 7-5 6-2. Kerber lost an early double break in the first set and was down *4-5 on serve but she handled the occasion well and held it together at the end of the first set. While Kerber wasn’t as aggressive as she was against Azarenka, she did all she needed to do to get the win. While the Brit gave it her best shot, 36 unforced errors were her undoing.
After defeating Maria Sharapova for the 18th consecutive time, Serena Williams went into her semi-final match against Agnieszka Radwanska having won all eight previous occasions. The world number one continued her sweep through the draw, producing another winner-laden performance to beat Radwanska, 6-0 6-4. Serena hit 42 (!) to 17 unforced errors and dropped just three points on her first serve throughout the entire match. While Serena won three of the four Grand Slams in 2015, she came through her fair share of nailbiters with 11 of her 26 victories coming in three sets. In this first Slam, it has been pretty much plain sailing for the American player and she’s been so much sharper following a much-needed break from the tour after last year’s US Open semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci.
Serena’s draw path: The world number one has yet to drop a set all week. Opening with her toughest match of the week based on the scoreline, Serena’s route through the draw has seen her secure wins over Camila Giorgi (6-4 7-5), Su-Wei Hsieh (6-1 6-2), Daria Kasatkina (6-1 6-1), Margarita Gasparyan (6-2 6-1), Maria Sharapova (6-4 6-1) and Agnieszka Radwanska (6-0 6-4).
Angie’s draw path: After saving a match point to defeat Misaki Doi in a first round, 6-7(4) 7-6(6) 6-3 victory, Kerber has followed it up with victories over Alexandra Dulgheru (6-2 6-4), Madison Brengle (6-1 6-3), Annika Beck (6-4 6-0), Victoria Azarenka (6-3 7-5) and Johanna Konta (7-5 6-2).
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Head-to-head record: Serena leads Kerber, 5-1 in their head-to-head. Kerber’s lone win came in Cincinnati in 2012, 6-4 6-4. While Serena was well below par on that day, Kerber did well to close both sets out which is never a given against Serena. Their most recent match in Stanford in 2014 saw Serena win in straight sets, 7-6(1) 6-3. Kerber had led 5-1 in the first set before Serena launched a stirring comeback.
Interesting stats about Serena: Serena’s last three Grand Slam finals have all been against first-time Grand Slam finalists having played Muguruza at Wimbledon and Safarova at the French Open. Serena’s record in Grand Slam finals is pretty impeccable and she has won her last eight Slam finals; the last loss came against Sam Stosur at the US Open back in 2011.
Analysis: As i’ve written before on numerous occasions, it’s always an unknown factor how a player competing in their first Grand Slam final will deal with the occasion. For Kerber, she will have to go above and beyond to compete with an in-form Serena; a quick start and getting that first game and first hold on the board will be huge. If Kerber can settle, she can certainly cause problems for Serena. The concern would be if the nerves take hold and prevent her from playing the game she wants and knows she has to play. Sitting back and playing passively will not get the job done against Serena. First serves are also key as the second serve will be very vulnerable to attack. The German player will need to improve on the 54% first serve percentage from the match against Konta.
While Serena continues to vocalise her “nothing to lose” attitude, she will still go in as the clear favourite and with pressure on her shoulders. Serena will be going for Grand Slam #22 and attempting to go level with Steffi Graf. Serena has had a few recent situations in Grand Slam finals where she has wobbled in a winning position; for example, the French Open final last year where she led by a set and a double break on Safarova but needed three sets. If she does have a lull, Kerber is more than capable of taking advantage.
My big hope for this match is that Kerber is able to settle quickly because if she can, I think this *could* be a great final. While I will be cheering for Kerber all the way, i’m going for Serena to prevail in two tight sets.