Australian Open 2016: 'Grafic' illustration of Serena Williams' greatness

Australian Open 2016: 'Grafic' illustration of Serena Williams' greatness

Martina Navratilova knows a little something about winning big tournaments at an advanced age, having claimed the last of her nine Wimbledon and 18 major titles at the age of 33. She also has experience of being equalled - and then overtaken - on the all-time list by Serena Williams, who celebrated No.19 of 21 at Melbourne Park one eventful year ago.

Now it is Steffi Graf in the American's sights, her Open-era record of 22 to be equalled if the 34-year-old defeats Angelique Kerber in Saturday night's Australian Open final - her seventh, with Williams 6-0 to date. "Amazing what Serena's doing at this age," Navratilova told Fairfax Media. "I know how hard it is to get out of bed every day in your 30s, and she's kicking butt."

As, indeed, she has in five of her six career meetings with Kerber, who grew up idolising the great Graf, and is now in the position of defending her countrywoman's place in the record books. She will try.

"I think so. The Germans must be together," the finals debutante joked before the biggest match of her life. "Maybe Steffi will give her some pointers," Navratilova quipped. "But Angie sure could use Steffi's serve."

Full-on: Serena Williams is as determined as ever for this Australian Open win.

Full-on: Serena Williams is as determined as ever for this Australian Open win.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Advice was gratefully received during a sponsor-facilitated practice session last March in Las Vegas, which was mostly about self-belief and the need to play aggressively. Not news, exactly, says Kerber's coach Torben Beltz, "but I think it's different to hear from Steffi than from me or anyone else, because she's so great." Indeed, a turning point of Kerber's season came in Charleston soon after. "Never know if it's the words [that changed things]," Beltz added, "but for sure it helped."

The follow-up contact came on Friday, Kerber having mentioned her idol during the on-court interview that followed her 7-5, 6-2 semi-final defeat of Brit Johanna Konta. Graf's post-match text message read something like "congratulations, I'm really happy for you" , and finished by wishing Kerber luck for the finals. She knows, of course, she will need significantly more than that.

Williams has been supreme during this tournament, her first since the devastating loss to Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals that left her two matches short of becoming the first player since - yes - Graf, in 1988 to win the grand slam. She did not play an official match for the next four months, until a testing opener at Melbourne Park against Camila Giorgi, with only a couple of exhibition giggles and a knee injury scare at the Hopman Cup in between.

"I definitely think I needed the time off. I've been going and going and going for a long time," Williams said after crushing fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-4 on Thursday. "Been really going hard since probably before the Olympics in 2012. That's a long time. So I felt like I really committed myself, and I needed to commit to myself and my body and take some time off, restart."

A more evocative description was the desire to "re-heal", for the deep US Open wound still ached. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, supported the extended break, unconcerned that Williams' desire for tennis had waned.

"I just knew she needed time to recover," he said, adding that it was difficult to be highly motivated on the practice court after all that had happened, and with the next major still some way off. "And I always told her I don't want her to compete if she's not ready," he said. "I think it's a mistake."

The Serena who resumed, he said, was "rested mentally", fresh and enjoying the contest. "She's very confident in her game and I think the new things she's worked on she really feels comfortable with so she goes for the shots without thinking, so this combination is quite deadly."

Quite. So much so that both player and coach agree she is already playing at a better level than last year, which, considering the results in 2015, is quite some statement.

Where they differ is on how unexpected it is to see Williams in the final, again. Could the winner of eight of the past 12 majors really have found this passage so improbable? "I'm not gonna say that she's lying, so I don't know about her," Mouratoglou smiled. "But I'm not surprised. I would be surprised if she was not."

That sounds more like it, given that some betting agencies have already paid out on a Williams win. As to what Kerber needs to do to cause an unlikely upset, Navratilova jokingly suggested that "maybe tying Serena's legs together would be a good start". More seriously, it is, as ever, the defending champion's match to win or lose.

"That's always the case, but particularly now the way she's playing, she's found such a good range of pace and control at the same time," said Navratilova. "Her 80 per cent is so much better than everybody else's 80 per cent shot, so then they're trying to go for 100 per cent and of course that creates all kinds of errors. So Angie's got to take advantage of her leftiness and just hope that Serena's not quite playing her best tennis."

Kerber is well aware that nothing less than her finest will do, but believes she is better equipped to produce it than before. A finalist in Brisbane, and quarter-final conqueror of second favourite Victoria Azarenka, the tenacious baseliner has lost just one of her first 10 matches in a season she entered in her best physical shape, and with new racquet strings she believes have added power, spin and touch.

Mentally, too, she feels stronger, having vowed to never again let nerves defeat her as they most recently did against Lucie Safarova at the WTA Finals in Singapore last October. Kerber has already been given an Australian Open life, of sorts, when she was one point from exiting in the first round for the second consecutive year.

Win or lose this one, she will return to the top five ranking she first achieved back in 2012, the year after her career was transformed by the US Open semi-final run the one-time battler likes to say launched her "new career" and a four-year residence in the top 10.

She believes a finals breakthrough in this, her 33rd major, has come at "the right moment. I'm ready for it because I have a lot of experience the last few years. I beat top players. I am a top player right now. So the work pays off, I think."

Only Williams won more titles than Kerber's four last season, and the first German woman to reach an Australian Open final since Anke Huber in 1996 hopes the fact that she has previously beaten this year's favourite means there will be due respect, and "that she's maybe shaking a little bit". Maybe. Kerber served well during that 2012 win in Cincinnati, and it is her second ball in particular that remains vulnerable to the Williams return.

And while "nothing to lose" was a recurring preview theme, Kerber's is clearly the stronger case, for she is aware that expectations are low. "I think when you ask a lot of people, I think most will say, 'OK, Serena will win'. But this is the challenge I can take. I go out there, I don't have nothing to lose. I don't have so much pressure like she has."

Still, there are sure to be nerves on such a big occasion for the understated blonde described recently as the "Best Supporting Actress" on the women's tour. But at least she is well-versed in the long narrative of a three-setter, as she attempts to seize the spotlight from one who has successfully taken the final bow so many times before.

Kerber's friend and doubles partner, Andrea Petkovic, says the combination of a game style that gives the top players "exactly the pace they need to play really well", and her compatriot's determination to respond and keep retrieving when challenged makes for lengthy contests. "I think these two things coming together just make for Hollywood, popcorn, great movie nights."

Even if, of course, the reality is that the sport's long-time leading lady will be across the net in this episode of Saturday night live, striving to equal the Open era record of a former star Williams once respectfully called Miss Graf.

How important is the number, such a big one, 22? "I think 23 is more important," says Mouratoglou, "because tying is one thing, beating is better".

Linda Pearce

Linda Pearce is the Chief Tennis Writer and general sports reporter for The Age. She writes about a range of sports, including football, netball, and gymnastics. Linda has twice been named Australian tennis writer of the year.

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