What did we just see in the women’s Australian Open final? Hard to say.
Was it Angelique Kerber rising up to join Serena Williams at the real highest level of the sport? Was it Serena Williams showing the first signs of the slow decline that comes with age? Or was it just Williams having another of those weird, every once in a while off days?
Probably, it was a little of all three.
Clearly, Williams was not up to her usual prime standard; she made a lot of errors, a number of giveaways on several crucial points, and seemed confused by Kerber’s play a lot of the match. (Maybe Kerber’s left-handedness threw Serena off.) So there’s plenty of reason to believe that Williams is a safe bet to steamroll through the rest of the Grand Slam calendar.
But…Williams is in her thirties now. She’s getting to the age when–as Chris Evert pointed out during ESPN’s coverage of the match–there comes those days where your body just doesn’t respond the way it used to. And last time I checked–say it with me sports fans–Father Time remains undefeated. As with Roger Federer and his slow, incremental slippage, Serena Williams is not likely to get better as time wears on. She will be helped immensely by the still inferior quality of the field against her–look at the collapse of so many of the ranked players in this Open tournament–but eventually, even Serena will find herself just not possessed of enough skill or talent or just plain verve to dominate anymore. (Plus she’s such a physical player, and athletes who rely on that kind of physicality, once the breakdown starts it can become major, if not catastrophic, very quickly. Williams is a prime candidate for dramatically falling off the table, whenever she reaches that breaking point.)
As for Kerber, has she now elevated to elite status? The match announcers said she’ll rise to #2 in the rankings with the win, so there’s that. But high rankings can be ephemeral; just look at Caroline Wozniacki. The most promising thing about Kerber’s win was that she never seemed to be playing the match of her life, despite it being a win in the biggest match of her career. Her victory of Williams owes as much to doggedness–an unyielding quality to her play–as to any particular brilliance on the court. That would seem to be a level of play that is more sustainable than a night of playing wild, out-of-your-mind tennis to pull off the upset. We’ll see what happens when the tour hits the softer courts in Europe in a couple of months.
However it plays out, tonight’s result seems to mark the first time in a long time where there’s reason to believe there’s some real intrigue on the women’s tennis landscape. Let’s hope the gents can provide even more interesting outcomes Saturday night.