Serena Williams tried to gain membership to an exclusive Wimbledon club yesterday, perhaps the most special of them all. “For the mums out there I played for you – I really tried,” she said at the end.
Tried, but couldn’t quite take her place alongside the four mothers who’d lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish. It had been too much to ask of even this incredible champion to have won the women’s singles only ten months after giving birth - and Angelique Kerber was too good.
The German, in winning the title for the first time, mounted an impregnable wall of defence, her crouched return from behind the baseline being the shot of a contest she won 6-3, 6-3 in just over an hour.
For the romantics this Wimbledon really hasn’t gone to plan. First the dream men’s final was ruined, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal unable to reconvene for a tenth anniversary sequel to tennis’ greatest match. Then the 36-year-old Willliams, who almost died following the arrival of daughter Olympia, came up just short in her fairytale return to the game she’s utterly dominated, unable to quite quell Kerber’s athleticism or accuracy of shot.
Kerber’s march to the final had been quiet while that of Williams had been the big story of this or any other Wimbledon. When Williams dumped her serve into the net she fell backwards onto the grass, or what was left of it after this baking hot tournament, and collected the trophy with tears in her eyes and dirt on her dress. She wouldn’t have been concerned about that. Maybe she wasn’t returning to the top after the drama of an emergency C-section delivery and dangerous blood-clots like Williams, but her 2017 had its demons and she was thrilled to have banished them.
Google “Wimbledon mothers” and you’ll probably end up in an internet chatroom with yummies mummies debating designer buggies’ manoeuvrability and the right age to introduce the sproglets to Waitrose’s best quinoa. You have to delve deeper, going back a century and more, to learn about Blanche Bingley Hillyard, Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Charlotte Cooper, the last of whom not only played in an ankle-length Victorian dress but was completely deaf. The newest member of the mums’ club, Evonne Goolagong, who came back and won as Mrs Cawley, was admitted all of 38 years ago.
Embroidering this story some more was Williams’ bid to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. Add the fact she was ranked 181 in the world before the tournament and you had a film script that Hollywood at its soppiest would have rejected as too fantastically far-fetched. The 30-year-old Kerber certainly didn’t bother reading it and, two hours after the final should have began, the women having been kept waiting by the held-over men’s semi, the Bremen counterpuncher broke Williams’ serve in the first game.
In front of the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, Williams quickly hit back. Her friend Meghan Markle must have been impressed by the aces and the wickedly dipping forehands which turned 0-2 into 3-2. Kerber responded with raking drives and then the Williams serve started to malfunction, two double-faults in a row restoring her opponent’s advantage.
After a breakout 2016 when she won the Australian and US Opens no one seemed to know what went wrong for Kerber the following year, least of all her. But the quality of her returns - she’d been the tournament’s best receiver – was causing Williams all sorts of problems.
Match by match, slowly but surely and ominously, Williams had been improving her movement and cranking up the power. But Kerber was making her lunge and run more than she would have preferred at this stage of her comeback. That was leading to errors, to frustration, and to the ball clearing the court and scudding the backboards. Serving to stay in the first set, Williams, the supreme fighter, scrambled back from love-30. But she couldn’t hold Kerber, who was now attacking as well as she was defending. The re-match of the final two years ago, which she lost, was decidedly going her way.
Williams needed to get off to a good start in the second set but Kerber won it on her serve with ease. Suddenly for Williams the next game seemed absolutely crucial. A sizzling drive from Kerber seemed to be maintaining her momentum but when she fired across another Williams almost found herself in its path by accident and the stop-volley seemed like an apology. Strong serving kept her in touch and at 30-30 on Kerber’s serve she had a chance.
“Come on, Serena!” willed the crowd. But the rally seemed too fast and to fierce for her. There was a wafty pat of a shot – older tennis fans should think Francoise Durr here – the likes of which we’d never seen from Williams before.
Williams won a long rally but another quickly followed and she lost that. One after the other Kerber produced her two best shots of the match - an amazing retrieval and a backhand down the line on the run. The prize was soon hers.