MELBOURNE, Australia — You cannot accuse Serena Williams of not providing fair warning.
Only a few days ago, when Williams was reminded that she always had won the Australian Open title after reaching the semifinals, Williams, in the midst of rolling through this year’s draw, took in the statistic and then provided the caveat.
“Nothing’s guaranteed in sports,” she said. “I still have to win two matches against potentially two extremely tough opponents.”
Perhaps it would be helpful at this advanced stage of her career not to know so well all that could go wrong. At 34, Williams has won so many big matches and big titles, growling her way through adversity of her own and the world’s making, but she also has experienced a growing number of seismic shifts in her tennis fortunes.
The latest came Saturday on a court that has long been one of her safer havens, as Angelique Kerber rose to the challenge and then some in her first Grand Slam final: creating sharp angles and big opportunities; absorbing Williams’s tremendous pace and intensity; and covering the court almost as well as her mentor Steffi Graf once covered it on her way to 22 major singles titles.
Kerber also avoided the classic trap of overplaying: going with the percentages instead of quick fixes; earning her points by thinking clearly; and coaxing Williams into errors instead of punching the panic button and trying to be a hero.
Above all, with her pulse and thoughts surely racing, Kerber was able to finish off her masterwork — the toughest task in a sport with no game clock and no time limit.
“That’s the thing we’re always wondering when you are close to closing out the match: How will you react, especially in your first Grand Slam final?” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Wiliams’s coach.
Now we have the answer.
“Congratulations,” said Mouratoglou, on what, in defeat, was a classy night all around for the gracious Williams and her camp.
But, courtesy of the last two Grand Slam tournaments, we also know that there truly are no guarantees in women’s tennis (other than the kind the stars get at minor tournaments).
How else to interpret last year’s United States Open, where the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci stopped Williams’s bid for a true Grand Slam in the semifinals? How to parse Zhang Shuai — 0-14 in Grand Slam singles matches — beating the No. 2 seed, Simona Halep, in the first round at this Australian Open?
“The mental part, it’s really big,” Kerber said. “I was able to see it also. I mean you must be relaxed, and you must really believe in yourself. This is actually the biggest thing I learn also in these two weeks, to go for it.”
Going for it only gets easier when someone went for it and survived before you. (Being the second one in your group to jump off the tall rock into the lake does not pose quite the same mental challenge as taking the leap first.)
In September, after Vinci’s upset, her Italian compatriot Flavia Pennetta became a first-time Grand Slam singles champion at age 33 and soon retired.
Speaking before the Australian Open, Pam Shriver, the former U.S. Open finalist who is now an analyst, suggested that Pennetta’s success would give other veteran players big ideas.
“I think it’s going to change the top players’ belief and get them thinking that there’s an opportunity for them as well,” Shriver said.
Fast forward to Saturday where Kerber won her first major at age 28, making her 11 years older than Williams was when she won her first at the 1999 U.S. Open.
As the seventh seed, Kerber was not nearly as much of an outsider in Melbourne as Vinci or Pennetta were in New York. But this was Kerber’s 33rd appearance in a Grand Slam tournament, ranking her seventh on the Open-era list for the longest wait before a singles title.
Pennetta, whose only major title came on her 49th appearance, ranks first on that list, followed by Marion Bartoli, who won Wimbledon in 2013 on her 47th Grand Slam appearance shortly before retiring. Trend alert? Absolutely, and pro tennis, an insular world, is a place where belief is contagious, particularly when Williams is not slamming aces and service winners like Williams can slam aces and service-winners.
Saturday was one of those nights: Williams produced nearly as many double faults (6) as aces (7); put only 53 percent of her first serves in play; and won a tournament-low 69 percent of the points on her first serve when she did.
“If Serena is not getting free points, her anxiety builds, and the points get long, and if the points get longer, that serves Angie,” said Rennae Stubbs, an Australian analyst. “And as the anxiety rises in Serena, she gets beatable.”
Though the narrative tends to get reduced to Williams against herself, this final was not all about Williams. Yes, she played too shaky a first set. Yes, she volleyed poorly, even by her standards. (Her backhand volley remains one of her rare weaknesses.) But her unconvincing serving night was also because of Kerber’s ability to read and return.
Not one of Williams’s first six opponents put more than 70 percent of Williams’s serves back in play. Kerber — acrobatic and resourceful — managed 81 percent and also broke Williams’s serve five times after Williams had dropped it just four times coming into the final.
Kerber had raised her own game, changing her diet, dropping some weight and shoring up her vulnerable serve in the off-season.
“She mixed her serve really well tonight,” said Stubbs, noting that the left-handed Kerber used to almost never hit a second serve wide in the deuce court, allowing the opposition plenty of preparation time.
But she deprived Williams of time and solid footing again and again on Saturday. She played deeply convincing defense but still attacked the openings. She hit drop shot winners under maximum pressure and came up with squat-shot forehands to reboot rallies after Williams blasted returns at her quick feet.
To sum up, she played her best tennis in the match she needed it most, and the reasonable assumption now is that the more times women like Pennetta and Kerber can break through, the easier it will get for everybody else trying to find some sunshine in Williams’s shadow.