Serena Williams's pursuit of an eighth Wimbledon title was denied in convincing fashion by the hard-hitting patience and precision of Angelique Kerber, one of just five women to have beaten Williams in a Grand Slam final before Saturday.
WIMBLEDON, England — Before Saturday, Serena Williams had addressed the crowd after contesting a Grand Slam final 29 times in her career — 23 times as the victor, six as runner-up. So she was as expert at this formality as she has proven expert in tennis itself over her remarkable career.
Saturday at the All England Club, however, her voice quivered with emotion after her pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title and eighth Wimbledon championship was denied, 6-3, 6-3, by the hard-hitting precision of Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
“To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. And I tried,” said Williams, 36, just 10 months after a difficult childbirth that was followed by grave medical complications. “Angelique played really well.”
Williams had said at the outset of Wimbledon that her return to competition was about more than adding Grand Slam titles. Through her journey, she sought to speak to women in all walks of life about what is possible when faced with challenges and setbacks.
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In that regard, Williams scored a victory of consequence in reaching Wimbledon’s final for a 10th time in her career — pushing herself to serve harder, run faster and do whatever was demanded to progress through the two-week competition.
“I’d just like to tell all the moms, I had such a long struggle to come back and it was really difficult,” Williams explained in her post-match interview. “Honestly I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I’m just that person, that vessel, that’s saying, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. If you want to go back to work … to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there’s no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job.”
It is a message that resonates with women in countless arenas, not just sports.
But Williams’ physical achievements — reaching the final of Wimbledon in her fourth tournament back following a 13-month maternity leave — are appreciated particularly by women who know firsthand the sacrifice required to compete at the top level of tennis and handle the demands of motherhood.
Few have tried doing both at once.
Kim Clijsters, the 2005 U.S. Open champion, came out of retirement to win the title twice more as a mother, in 2009 and 2010. Clijsters was younger then (26 and 27) than Williams is now, and she took a longer hiatus.
Victoria Azarenka, 28, a former No. 1 like Williams, is climbing back up the rankings with a 19-month-old son in tow. Ousted in the second round of Wimbledon’s singles event, Azarenka will compete for the mixed-doubles title, paired with Jamie Murray of Scotland on Sunday.
“It is a great statement [Williams] is giving all moms, that you can get back to [being] even a very elite athlete,” said former pro Mary Joe Fernandez, a mother of two who has coached Serena and her sister Venus in Fed Cup competition and now serves as an ESPN analyst. “When I retired it didn’t even cross my mind — the possibility of coming back. ‘How am I ever going to get back in shape? Get that desire back? Get back in shape? Get that motivation back?’ I felt like I didn’t sleep for a year with the first baby. How do you juggle all that — go to practice, train physically and take care of your child? Serena is showing you can do it.”
When last seen at Wimbledon before this fortnight, in the 2016 final, Williams won her seventh title by defeating Kerber, 7-5, 6-3.
So it was fitting that Williams faced Kerber once again in the final. The German, now 30 and a two-time Grand Slam champion, would prove an ideal benchmark for how far Williams had come in the past four months and how far she had to go to reclaim her world-beating form.
A star-studded crowd of 14,900 packed Centre Court, including golfer Tiger Woods, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and, looking on from the front row of the Royal Box, the Duchess of Cambridge (the former Kate Middleton) and the Duchess of Sussex (the former Meghan Markle), a dear friend of Williams.
The women’s final was delayed roughly two hours so world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and former No. 1 Novak Djokovic could complete their semifinal, which was halted the previous day at 11 p.m. in compliance with the tournament’s curfew. Afterward, neither woman quibbled over the late start, pointing out that tournament officials had no option otherwise and insisting it hadn’t affected them.
Kerber broke Williams’ serve to open the match — a rare and startling achievement. The German’s strategy quickly became clear: Move Williams side to side, coax her forward with drop shots and get her on her wrong foot when she could.
Strong, fit and determined, Kerber wasn’t rattled by Williams’ powerful groundstrokes. She absorbed the power and blasted balls back in kind. And while she hit far fewer winners than Williams (11 to 23), Kerber was precise, committing just five unforced errors in the 110-point match.
She also had belief in her corner, as one of just five women to have beaten Williams in a Grand Slam final before Saturday. And she needed just 65 minutes to beat her once more.
Said three-time Grand Slam champion Tracy Austin: “I think it was just a step too far, too soon. Serena today played against an opponent who was able to sustain an incredible level … Sometimes we expect so much from Serena because she has delivered so much in the past.”
Based on Williams’ level after just four tournaments, Austin said she had no doubt that she’d win the 24th Grand Slam that would tie Margaret Court’s record — and possibly a 25th or more.
Within an hour of her defeat, Williams had turned her focus to just that, explaining, “I’m already deciphering what I need to improve on, what I need to do, what I did wrong, why I did it wrong, how I can do better — that whole madness that goes on in my mind.”