Consistency outpaced power in the first of two women’s semifinals at Wimbledon on Thursday, as two-time major champion Angelique Kerber defeated last year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 6-3, in just over an hour. The win for the German advanced her to a second ladies’ singles championship final, the previous one in 2016.
“First of all it was a really tough match,” Kerber told the BBC immediately after walking off Centre Court. “She is hitting the ball really hard. I was trying to move well. I’m really excited.”
The contrast in game styles made for a compelling match, but not a great one. Ostapenko’s overall performance didn’t come close to how she had dispatched players in the prior five rounds of the tournament, all in straight sets. She could not ignite her blistering, deep and speedy groundstrokes because Kerber’s defensive mastery was an obstacle the 21-year-old could not climb or penetrate.
“She’s learning what a wall she [Kerber] can be,” Mary Jo Fernandez said of Ostapenko when calling the match for ESPN. Fernandez made the point when Kerber led, 5-3.
Kerber’s “wall” was built on consistent serving, anticipation, footspeed, absorbing pace, changing spins, and redirecting the ball.
“I was not expecting like too long rallies,” Kerber told the press later. “I know that I have to do it in the first few shots, to be aggressive, to bring a lot of balls back.”
Once Kerber extended rallies, Ostapenko’s chances of winning points fell. Her errors mounted. Ostapenko wasn’t able to hit out — which frequently means making the chalk fly — without the constant threat of another ball coming back over the net. However that’s the power of Kerber. She ran with it like a champ to the finish line.
“This is how many shots you have to hit against Kerber,” Fernandez said, after Ostapenko won a point after a longer rally. “She [Ostapenko] can do it a few times, but she just can’t do it enough. You can’t blast your way through Kerber.”
To Ostapenko’s credit, she made slight changes to her game in the second set.
Instead of targeting lines she hit three feet inside them. She put more spin on shots instead of sticking with ironing-board flat ones. She took a couple balls out of the air for winners, as Kerber camped on the baseline and popped up a few returns. Ostapenko also won more points at the net: 6 of 7 to Kerber’s 0 of 1.
The moderation helped Ostapenko take advantage of her third break point, as Kerber tried to close the match at 5-1 in the second. She literally stumbled along the baseline as she tried to return a deep forehand from Ostapenko.
“Kerber wants to finish her off right now,” Fernandez said, insightfully. “[She] doesn’t want to give her any chance to come in [to the match].”
Kerber looked rattled for the first time in the match. Her eyes darted toward Wim Fissette, her coach, sitting calmly in the players’ box. She cracked a crosscourt forehand winner off an Ostapenko serve that perfectly illustrated Kerber’s frustration, as the crowd gasped. The winner did not prevent Ostapenko from holding for 3-5 and forcing Kerber to serve a second time for the win. Kerber said more about the quality of her opponent at the end of the contest:
“I was trying not to think too much because I know how she played where she came back from a score like that,” Kerber said later. “Then she has nothing to lose and she is even playing better.”
Then at 30-40 on Kerber’s serve at 5-3 in the second, Ostapenko hesitated on a return — a mistake she made too many times in this match. She failed to get the ball in play, a basic game requirement.
“When it was 5-3, I had a couple break points,” Ostapenko said. “I felt the match could turn the other way. She started to miss couple of balls, which she didn’t before because she was playing very consistent. But, I was rushing too much and hit some unforced errors, which I shouldn’t, of course.”
Kerber stood at the baseline, the match on her racquet for the second time. Now or never. A short rally ensued. Ostapenko pulled Kerber wide, a spot from where she could never recover. Then, BAM — Ostapenko hit a sitting forehand wide. Game, set, match, Kerber. She had forced her opponent to hit yet another ball, the key to success in so many tennis matches.
“I was trying to focus on my serve in the last game,” Kerber added. “I think that was the key at the end because you never know what happen when I would (have) lost the game for 4-5.”
Had Ostapenko won that game, she was figuring out her game as well as Kerber’s; all bets would have been off. The missed forehand became the worst error of the match. It also gives fuel to the argument: Should women play a best-of-five format at majors?
“There are a lot of matches like this in men’s [tennis] where the first two sets go by quickly, but that extra set gives the losing side another chance to come back into the match. And, it happens,” tennis journalist Mert Ertunga said after this semifinal ended. “[The match] turns into a quality four- or five-setter. I thought Jelena would have turned a third set into a tight, entertaining match.”
Kerber’s berth in the final is a pinnacle of sorts. She reached number one at the end of 2016, after having won the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. The following year was a burden for her mentally and physically. In November, she amicably parted with longtime coach Torben Beltz and hired Wim Fissette.
“I’m really proud to be back… in the Wimbledon final,” Kerber said, adding,” especially [after] last year where things weren’t like I was expecting.”
Kerber will have to reinforce her patient, consistent game style when she faces Serena Williams on Saturday in the ladies’ singles championship. The American ousted Kerber’s fellow German, Julia Goerges, 6-2, 6-4, to set up their second meeting in a final at Wimbledon in the past three years. Williams won her seventh Wimbledon title two years ago, avenging her loss to Kerber at the Australian Open.
This is a third major final between Serena and Kerber. The winner will take a 2-1 edge in these championship meetings. Kerber will have to play a lot of great defense in order to withstand Serena’s power.
Serena is certainly a much taller order than Ostapenko, but if Kerber’s defense on Thursday is any indication of her readiness for a Serena reunion on Saturday, her level of play should be able to create a fascinating and close match.