In a rematch of this year’s Australian Open final, top seed Serena Williams of the US will face fourth seed Angelique Kerber of Germany in the ladies’ singles championship match at Wimbledon on Saturday.
For the third time this year, Serena will have a chance to equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam titles. And once again standing between Serena and history will be Kerber.
Serena has the clear advantage over Kerber in this rivalry, having won five of their seven matches. But the German won their last clash, the final in Melbourne.
That win was built on one crucial aspect -- the return of serve. At the Australian Open, none of Serena’s opponents in the first six rounds managed to put more than 70% of her serves back in play. Kerber did so 81% of the time, using her big lefty forehand to fire the ball back fast and deep to gain control of the rallies.
The German took care of matters on her own serve as well, using the slice serve out wide to drag the American out of position before going big with her forehand, down the line as well as crosscourt, to finish the point. Kerber didn’t back off when pushed to her backhand either, winning several points with clean crosscourt backhand winners.
However, all those seven clashes have been on hard courts. On grass, where the ball stays low and the bounce isn’t quite as reliably consistent, Serena could spot an opening to exploit.
Both women have posted similary impressive numbers on serve thus far at The Championships. Serena has put in 66% of her first serves, Kerber 71%. The difference between the two has been the second delivery, with the American winning 51% of second-serve points, while the German has managed just 27%. Serena will be keen to exploit this weakness.
The Vinci effect
In Melbourne, Serena appeared to have put her shocking upset at the hands of Italy’s Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of last year’s US Open behind her. It was a loss that brought to an unexpected end her bid to become the first woman to win all four Slams in the same year since Graf in 1988.
But in the final against Kerber, Serena looked tight and tense. Her serve was off and she didn’t exude the kind of assuredness that one has come to expect from a woman whose record in Grand Slam finals now stands at 21-6. She looked like she was still carrying scar tissue from her loss to Vinci.
By now, the American has come to expect fearless, go-for-broke tennis from her opponents, who know they have to take it to her and aren’t going to be gifted a single free point.
“I felt like she played great. She came out swinging, ready to win. She was fearless. That’s something I learned. When I go into a final, I, too, need to be fearless like she was,” Serena said about her loss to Kerber.
Serena hasn’t won a Grand Slam for a year, and twice already this season she has faltered in a major final when strongly favoured to win.
Achieving a tally of 21 titles is special, but Williams seems stuck there. After that disappointment against Kerber in Melbourne, she lost to Spain’s Garbine Muguruza at Roland Garros last month.
But the 34-year-old seems far more relaxed and ready now, after taking just over 48 minutes to crush Elena Vesnina in Wimbledon’s quickest ever semi-final.
“Sometimes when you are fighting, sometimes you want something so bad, it can hinder you a little bit,” Serena said. “Now I’m just a little bit more calm.... Doesn’t mean that I have less competitive (instincts) at all. I think confidence brews peace and calm in champions. I think that’s how I feel.”
Kerber, for her part, has struggled to deal with the newfound pressure that comes with being a Grand Slam champion. She tumbled to early losses in the middle East and at Indian Wells before crashing out of Paris in the first round.
Fortunately for fans hoping for a drama-filled final, Kerber isn’t the type to back down in the face of Serena’s aggression.
The 28-year-old, in her first Wimbledon final and second major title match, couldn’t be in better form as she tries to become the first German woman to win Wimbledon since her idol Graf in 1996.
“I told myself that I would like to play better in the big tournaments. I just believe much more in myself, especially after Australia,” Kerber said.
“I’m feeling more relaxed and I’m not making things too complicated like in Australia,” she said after her 6-4, 6-4 win over five-time Wimbledon winner Venus Williams in the semifinal. “I think this is the key.”
“I’m a little bit more relaxed when I’m going to the tournaments,” she added. “I know that I can trust my tennis.”
After sweeping to the final without dropping a set, Kerber is guaranteed to reach a career-high second in the rankings next week.
With both women having gotten recent baggage off their backs, whoever gets off to the better start could well be the one hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish come Saturday evening.
Full coverage: Wimbledon 2016