Sporting Life

Dramatic final between two fighters is good for sport

What do we know of tennis? We read, analyse, judge, rate, pick a winner and then find we are beautifully wrong. We come to a court certain to see an ancient German history rewritten only for a German to write her own astonishing history. Steffi Graf's 22 Grand Slam titles is not yet matched and Angelique Kerber's smile will never be equalled. This is a final that was good for sport.

We insist women's tennis is colourless and right through the quarter-finals and semi-finals we got straight-set snoozes. Then, from nowhere, arrives a final struggle that is as gladiatorial as it is graceful. These were surveyors exploring every inch of the court and geometricians having a public contest in finding acute angles.

"Really intense," said Serena Williams, whose many errors, to be fair, ensured there was a contest at all. "Gave me goose bumps," claimed Kerber. Exquisite, we say. If there was a shot not played it's hard to remember and if there's a shot we can't forget it came twice in the third set.

The pivotal sixth game in the third set, with Williams serving at 2-3, took 10 minutes, 16 points, seven winners, a 19-shot rally and two Kerber drop shots. The first came when Williams had a game point. The second, in somewhat the same place, like some deathly deja vu, set up break point. Said Williams: "I'm really fast. But I just wasn't able to read (them)." Said Kerber: "That's how I am, a little bit crazy." This is the way, we recommend, to contest a trophy.

This was a final that made us fall a little bit in love with sport again. We mock modern athletes, usually rightly, for their boorish behaviour and yet here were two women, one wearing red, one yellow, shrieking and grunting under a blue-grey sky, who never lost their moorings.

This was a final that made us fall a little bit in love with sport again. We mock modern athletes, usually rightly, for their boorish behaviour and yet here were two women, one wearing red, one yellow, shrieking and grunting under a blue-grey sky, who never lost their moorings. They were trying to defeat each other even while they were applauding each other.

Williams, we noted once, was an inelegant loser and then on this day she crossed the net, hugged Kerber, spoke generously of her on court, laughed with her and praised her "attitude" in the press room. Classy comes quickly to mind.

The final was wondrous because it introduced us to a character. Understandably we fall for the stars of sport, but it's the rest of the field, ambitious, dreamy, sweaty, driven, forgotten, whose faces we can't put names to, who have their own stories and, yes, their own skills. When the match was done, the slighter German had more unreturned serves than the heftier American. Imagine that.

No doubt Kerber will receive a congratulatory text from Graf, with whom she has practised, but really she is the anti-Graf. She is not a light-footed dancer who throws forehand grenades like her predecessor, but more a descendant of Jimmy Connors, who woke up and searched for a scrap and believed that giving away a single point was an insult to his manhood.

"Spill your guts" was Connors' sweaty, snarling, swearing maxim and Kerber followed suit yesterday, though in a far more decorous manner. She ran, lunged, wheeled, and then ran again. If any terriers were watching they would be terrified. She was telling Williams, you have to beat me, and Williams, who could not beat her, later conceded: "She fights for everything. She doesn't really give you a lot... I think her movement is really something." Just for the record, on the German's shirt was written Porsche.

This was a final which was influential in reminding us about pressure. Because we forget. We just imagine Williams will show up and win as if her reputation will simply floor everyone and her serve will demolish anyone. But greatness is work done, pressure managed, expectation worn.

Last year she lost to Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals and now to Kerber in this final. It makes us consider what we should have known: even she gets nervous, even she errs. Ironically, only when the great champion loses a little do we acknowledge how difficult it must have been to win so much.

In the press room later, the equable Williams' most poignant moment came when she said of the media and probably of the world: "Everyone expects me to win every single match, every day of my life. As much as I would like to be a robot, I'm not." It was a very human cry.

This was a final we needed because always we say "anything is possible" but here was its blonde, brilliant proof. A German leftie, who in 2011 lost 11 times in the first round, was now sitting in a press room with a grin, a glass of champagne and a trophy. Had the legendary German fairy-tale writers, the Grimm Brothers, been around, they might have wished they had written this tale.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Dramatic final between two fighters is good for sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe