Australian Open 2016: Kerber, grand slam champion, in uncharted waters

Perhaps it was lack of sleep that convinced Angelique Kerber to take the self-described "crazy" theme from Saturday night to the next extreme by taking a morning plunge into the murky Yarra. She was not back at her hotel until 4am, then headed to the bar to celebrate with her close-knit team, just three hours before day-after media duties were due to begin.

That involved a photo shoot at Government House –  home to the first woman, Linda Dessau, to hold the Victorian vice-regal office – and an unscheduled swim for the first German woman to win a grand slam singles title since Steffi Graf in 1999. Jim Courier was the first to start the champion's dip-in-the-river ceremony, back in 1992. Strangely, the trend has never really caught on. 

The day after the night before: Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber  holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at ...
The day after the night before: Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at Government House on Sunday. Photo: Getty Images

Kerber, though, was determined to settle her pre-tournament bet, even though "it was cold, and the river's a little bit dirty", she admitted with a smile. Nor had she been deterred the previous night on Rod Laver Arena, where the major finals debutante completed a brave and improbable victory against six-time defending champion Serena Williams. In 32 previous slams, she had reached just one semi-final. She had turned 28 the day before a shaky opening round in which she saved a match point.

By Sunday, when reunited with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, she was $3.4 million richer, the new world No.2, her commitment vindicated and her improvement – physically and, particularly, mentally – validated at the highest level. The fact the breakthrough 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 victory came against the greatest player in the game made it more satisfying still.

"Actually, it's still a little bit strange, but I think after these hours I try to realise that I really am one of the players that won the grand slam," Kerber said on Sunday. "It sounds still a little bit crazy but, at the end, it sounds great. That was always my goal to win a grand slam, and last night my dream came true, so it's really nice."

Kerber said she knew even when leading 5-2 in the third set that the contest was not over. Eventually, after two hours and eight minutes, it was. Crazy, really. "When I won the match point, I had so many emotions and, of course, positive things, getting in my mind that I [am] making history as well in Germany and everybody is supporting me, so it was a kind of a feeling that I will never forget."


Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou's neat summation was of the winner having played the match of her life to beat an opponent who did not serve well in the big games, failed to execute at the net, was not able to perform at the level she had been earlier in the tournament. "It was enough."

One crucial unknown was how Kerber would react if she could work her way into a winning position, because it was a place the first-time finalist had never been before. "That's the thing we are always wondering: when you're close to closing the match, how will you react, especially in your first grand slam final," Mouratoglou said, then added simply. "Congratulations."

As to whether or not Kerber's coach and fellow Yarra swimmer Torben Beltz was surprised, his response was: "I  know that she has this in her to play like this. I see in practice, I see lots of games where she plays like the crazy-good, so I know it was in her, but I think to win a grand slam everything has to fit together."

That fitting together meant the first-round escape that really did convince Kerber to play like there was nothing to lose, a quarter-final upset of second favourite Victoria Azarenka, who had outplayed her in Brisbane, the belief she could win the final against an opponent she had beaten once before, and the composure, tenacity, skill and daring to make it happen again.

"I was trying to believe much more in myself," the left-hander said afterwards. "When I won the first set, when I won against Azarenka, that shows me that I really am a good player and I can show it as well on the big courts. You know, I was not playing very good last year on the big tournaments. This is the first big tournament of the year, and I won it, the first grand slam. It sounds crazy, but I can say I'm a grand slam champion now."

And, while unaware of Williams' exceptional record in three-set grand slam finals, the super-fit Kerber was confident of her own ability to go the distance in her first. Her ambitions now? "To win some more," she beamed. "Right now I'm not thinking about this. I try to really enjoy every moment, what's happened right now, taking all the experience with me. I mean, I think my phone is exploding right now. I don't know how many messages I get. It's like amazing."

This, said the seventh seed, was a victory for the believers – notably her family and team – for Kerber has been the biggest doubter. The toughest time was in 2011, when she lost 11 times in first rounds. Then came the US Open semi-final that altered everything. Saturday's was the match that will transform even more.

"Sometimes I was not believing too much in myself," she said. "Here it's change everything. My coaches and everybody, they saw that I played very good in the practice. They couldn't understand actually why I can't transfer it to the matches. That's why I think that I am not the easiest one to coach or to say something that it works. I think now I find my best team and they can handle me."

So what's next? Wimbledon? No.1? How will everything change for Kerber now? "It's tough to say what it means for the future, but I think now lots of things are going to happen," Beltz said. "I think she has the game to stay there for a long time, I think she has the game to win more titles, yes. But I also think it's good to settle down now and get some rest and then try to work hard again, play hard again, because the next one is coming and it's not going to be easy."