It was impossible to ignore the narrative unfolding on Centre Court. A likable heroine. An unlikely comeback. A performance for the ages. Royals! Down to the final point of Saturday’s women’s Wimbledon final, the script seemed to be slipped from the pages of an English fairy tale. But for the majority of this fortnight, most of us missed it.
We were all so focused on the remarkable return of a 23-time Grand Slam champion from maternity leave that we overlooked the Cinderella story unfolding on the other end of the court. To watch Angelique Kerber hoist the Venus Rosewater Dish in victory and read that moment as Serena Williams losing out on her chance for a fairy-tale ending, or to see Kerber as the spoiler in Williams’ heartwarming story, would have been a disservice to how incredible Kerber’s resurgence this season has been.
“After 2017, nobody was expecting me to come back so strong, to win my third Grand Slam, win Wimbledon, which was always my dream,” Kerber said after becoming one of only five women ever to beat Williams in a Grand Slam final. “Two weeks ago, nobody expected I can go so far.”
It’s possible it wasn’t until the 30-year-old German was lying face-up on the perennial rye, her racket by her side and her hands gripping at the corners of her visor, tears sliding down her cheeks, that the focus turned solely to Kerber — a Wimbledon champion for the first time in her career. Even as she stormed through the early rounds, dropping only one set all tournament and beating three players in the top 18 before facing Williams, Kerber’s was not the name on anyone’s lips.
Heck, even when she was up a set on Williams in the final — even when she was up a set and 5-2 — the storyline was that Williams was down, not that the hard-hitting Kerber could close out the match at any moment. It was as if the capacity Centre Court crowd expected Williams to smash a few more 125 mph aces, which she did to close out the fifth game of the first set, turn her fate 180 degrees and accomplish something no other top-25 seed was able to do against Kerber this fortnight: stop her.
“From the first point to the last point, she played unbelievable today,” Williams said of Kerber. “It was definitely a different game [than I’ve seen this tournament], but at times she hit the ball really hard. She was striking the ball out there today.”
The last time Williams and Kerber faced each other, it was here on Centre Court for the 2016 Wimbledon championship, where Serena avenged a loss six months earlier in the Australian Open final, to win her 22nd Grand Slam title, tying Steffi Graf’s Open-era record, which she would ultimately topple at the Australian Open the next year. Kerber rebounded from that 2016 Wimbledon loss to win the US Open two months later. Over the course of 2016, the powerful lefty won two majors and played in the final of another, and rose to No. 1 in the world.
Then Kerber all but disappeared, destined, it seemed, to go the way of a player like Ana Ivanovic, the Serb who surged for a season, won the 2008 French Open and never saw another Slam final. In 2017, overwhelmed and overscheduled, Kerber failed to advance out of the fourth round of a major, dropped out of the top 20 and fired her longtime coach. No one would have been surprised if she were unable to pull herself back into relevance. That she has been one of the most consistent players on tour this year, making the quarterfinals or better in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Paris and Wimbledon, and returned to a top-10 ranking is a remarkable achievement and a testament to her mental strength, even if it has gone virtually unnoticed until now.
“Without 2017, I couldn’t win this tournament,” Kerber said. “I learned a lot from last year, with all the expectations, all the things I go through. I learned so many things about myself, about how to deal with this. I tried to enjoy every single moment now. Also, [it was hard] to find the motivation after 2016, which was amazing. To make again such a year is impossible. But now I am just trying to [improve] my game, thinking not too much about the results, trying to be a better tennis player, a better person, and I’m trying to enjoy tennis again.”
Kerber entered Wimbledon ranked No. 10 in the world but seeded just outside the top 10. As the women ranked above her toppled like dominoes in the Wimbledon wind, the story became their defeat instead of the fact that Kerber was plowing through the draw. That might have created an unexpected benefit for Kerber, whose performance went virtually unnoticed throughout the first six rounds, despite her being the top seed remaining after the fourth. But Kerber wasn’t interested in attention. She didn’t care to be the story — not until she did something worth writing about. After Saturday’s performance, Angelique Kerber is a subplot no more.