WIMBLEDON, England – As Serena Williams pulled even with Steffi Graf’s towering record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era of tennis on Saturday at Wimbledon, she did so in a way that might have flattered her most.
She overcame an opponent of sterling quality and all-grown-up Grand Slam mentality. Reversing the outcome from the Australian Open final last January, Williams bested the 28-year-old German Angelique Kerber, 7-5, 6-3, in a match of varied rallies and rare quality that drew frequent gasps from the audience.
From the get-go to the players’ long embrace at the net at the end, a reprise of their warm hug after Kerber’s win in Melbourne, Williams did have one marked advantage that piled upon her unquestionable mental strength. She rode her legendary serve through the rocks of the match. The break point she faced in the seventh game of the second set was the first she had seen in her last 31 service games.
She cleared away that with a 117-mph ace to the doubles line.
That gave her a 4-3 lead so that the next game could prove pivotal. In that, Kerber, who ranks No. 4 in the world but will move up to No. 2 next week, served to a 40-15 lead. She then suffered two typical Williams blasts, a backhand and a forehand, that wreaked two forced errors. Then Kerber, for a rare time in the match during which Williams applauded her several times, sprayed two errors for the break.
From there, serving for a seventh Wimbledon title that also ties Graf at two behind Martina Navratilova’s nine, Williams had only to serve out the match. She knew how. Having avoided the topic of Graf’s mark recently after she lost in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open, the 2016 Australian Open and the 2016 French Open, Williams left no doubt. She began with three masterful serves that Kerber could only tick with her racket. Then the final exchange left Williams at the net with an open court to her forehand side. When she directed that last forehand volley there, she fell backward to the grass – and to the top.
In on-court interviews with the BBC, as the players exchanged warm compliments of each other, Williams said, “It’s been incredibly difficult not to think about” the record, but she concluded with, “I’m just so excited.”