WIMBLEDON, England — Before Saturday, Serena Williams had addressed the crowd after contesting a Grand Slam final 29 times in her career — 23 times as the victor, six as runner-up. So she was as expert at this formality as she has proven expert in tennis itself over her remarkable career.
Saturday at the All England Club, however, her voice quivered with emotion after her pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title and eighth Wimbledon championship was denied, 6-3, 6-3, by the hard-hitting precision of Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
“To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. And I tried,” said Williams, 36, just 10 months after a difficult childbirth that was followed by grave medical complications. “Angelique played really well.”
Williams had said at the outset of Wimbledon that her return to competition was about more than adding Grand Slam titles. Through her journey, she sought to speak to women in all walks of life about what is possible when faced with challenges and setbacks.
In that regard, Williams scored a victory of consequence in reaching Wimbledon’s final for a 10th time in her career — pushing herself to serve harder, run faster and do whatever was demanded to progress through the two-week competition.
“I’d just like to tell all the moms, I had such a long struggle to come back and it was really difficult,” Williams explained in her post-match interview. “Honestly I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I’m just that person, that vessel, that’s saying, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. If you want to go back to work … to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there’s no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job.”
It is a message that resonates with women in countless arenas, not just sports.
But Williams’s physical achievements — reaching the final of Wimbledon in her fourth tournament back following a 13-month maternity leave — are appreciated particularly by women who know first-hand the sacrifice required to compete at the top level of tennis and handle the demands of motherhood.
Few have tried doing both at once.
Kim Clijsters, the 2005 U.S. Open champion, came out of retirement to win the title twice more as a mother, in 2009 and 2010. Clijsters was younger then (26 and 27) than Williams is now, and she took a longer hiatus.
Victoria Azarenka, 28, a former No. 1 like Williams, is climbing back up the rankings with a 19-month-old son in tow. Ousted in the second round of Wimbledon’s singles event, Azarenka will compete for the mixed-doubles title, paired with Jamie Murray of Scotland on Sunday.
“It is a great statement [Williams] is giving all moms, that you can get back to [being] even a very elite athlete,” said former pro Mary Joe Fernandez, a mother of two who has coached Serena and her sister Venus in Fed Cup competition and now serves as an ESPN analyst. “When I retired it didn’t even cross my mind — the possibility of coming back. ‘How am I ever going to get back in shape? Get that desire back? Get that motivation back?’ I felt like I didn’t sleep for a year with the first baby. How do you juggle all that — go to practice, train physically and take care of your child? Serena is showing you can do it.”
When last seen at Wimbledon before this fortnight, in the 2016 final, Williams won her seventh title by defeating Kerber, 7-5, 6-3.
So it was fitting that Williams faced Kerber once again in the final. The German, now 30 and a two-time Grand Slam champion, would prove an ideal benchmark for how far Williams had come in the past four months and how far she had to go to reclaim her world-beating form.
A star-studded crowd of 14,900 packed Centre Court, including golfer Tiger Woods, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and, looking on from the front row of the Royal Box, the Duchess of Cambridge (the former Kate Middleton) and the Duchess of Sussex (the former Meghan Markle), a dear friend of Williams.
The women’s final was delayed roughly two hours so world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and former No. 1 Novak Djokovic could complete their semifinal, which was halted the previous day at 11 p.m. in compliance with the tournament’s curfew. Afterward, neither woman quibbled over the late start, pointing out that tournament officials had no option otherwise and insisting it hadn’t affected them.
Kerber broke Williams’s serve to open the match — a rare and startling achievement. The German’s strategy quickly became clear: Move Williams side to side, coax her forward with drop shots and get her on her wrong foot when she could.
Strong, fit and determined, Kerber wasn’t rattled by Williams’s powerful groundstrokes. She absorbed the power and blasted balls back in kind. And while she hit far fewer winners than Williams (11 to 23), Kerber was precise, committing just five unforced errors in the 111-point match.
She also had belief in her corner, as one of just five women to have beaten Williams in a Grand Slam final before Saturday. And she needed just 65 minutes to beat her once more.
Said two-time Grand Slam champion Tracy Austin: “I think it was just a step too far, too soon. Serena today played against an opponent who was able to sustain an incredible level. … Sometimes we expect so much from Serena because she has delivered so much in the past.”
Based on Williams’s level after just four tournaments, Austin said she had no doubt that she’d win the 24th Grand Slam that would tie Margaret Court’s record — and possibly a 25th or more.
Within an hour of her defeat, Williams had turned her focus to just that, explaining, “I’m already deciphering what I need to improve on, what I need to do, what I did wrong, why I did it wrong, how I can do better — that whole madness that goes on in my mind.”
— Liz Clarke
Big names in the stands
In addition to the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, Serena Williams has brought out a number of other big names. In her box alone are racecar driver Lewis Hamilton, Vogue editor Anna Wintour and TV producer Shonda Rhimes.
Celebrities also showed their support from afar.
The Royals are here
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are in attendance to watch the women’s single final. The Duchess of Sussex and Serena Williams are close friends. Meghan came to Wimbledon in 2016 to support Williams, and Williams attended the Duchess’s wedding to Prince Harry in May.
The Duchess of Cambridge, tagged a tennis enthusiast, became the patron of Wimbledon in December 2016, relieving the Queen Elizabeth II of the duty.
Before her match against Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams gets in some last minute preparation. The match will begin following the conclusion of the men’s second final match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Wimbledon women’s singles final
Who: Serena Williams will face No. 11 seed Angelique Kerber, with Williams in pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 career major titles. Williams, a seven-time winner at Wimbledon, would equal Court’s record if she can top Kerber in a rematch of the 2016 Wimbledon final. (She is 23-6 in Grand Slam finals.) Kerber, 30, a former world No. 1, has claimed two Grand Slam titles, both in 2016.
Williams, 36, won her last Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open while about eight weeks pregnant. She missed the next four majors, returned at the French Open this spring, but had to drop out of that event because of a pectoral injury before a scheduled round-of-16 match. It was her first withdrawal from singles competition during a major tournament.
When: The women’s final was scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, but that start time could be pushed back by the conclusion of the second men’s semifinal. That Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal match, which Djokovic leads two sets to one, will resume at 8 a.m. Eastern, with the winner facing South Africa’s Kevin Anderson in Sunday’s men’s final. Saturday’s women’s final will start after the conclusion of the men’s match.
How to watch on TV: ESPN will air the women’s final live. Chris Fowler will have the play-by-play, and Chris Evert will be the analyst. The match is also scheduled to re-air on ABC at 3 p.m. Eastern, and on ESPNEWS at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Wimbledon showings: Williams is playing in her 18th main draw at Wimbledon, and has now reached an astonishing 10 finals. She won the women’s singles titles in 2015 and 2016 — her previous two appearances — and has now won 20 straight matches there, equaling the longest streak of her career. That previous stretch came from 2002 to 2004, when Williams won consecutive titles before losing in the 2004 final. Kerber, from Germany, is at her 11th Wimbledon, but advanced to the semifinals for just the third time this year. Like Williams, she has dropped just one set in this year’s tournament.
The 2016 final: Williams found history in her last Wimbledon meeting with Kerber, equaling Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles with her 7-5, 6-3 victory. The Post’s Chuck Culpepper chronicled her dominance in that match:
Through a high-quality match with vivid rallies that drew gasps from the audience, her serve kept carrying her over any rocks. She faced only one break point — the only one she faced in the last three rounds — in the seventh game of the second set. She cleared that away with a 117-mph ace to the doubles line. She blasted 13 aces to Kerber’s zero. Unreturned serves went 27-12.
“I try everything,” Kerber said . . .
[In the final game, Williams] placed and blasted three first serves — 94 mph, 114, 101 — on which the ball only ticked Kerber’s racket. At 40-love, she produced a backhand volley and a forehand volley (part of her 16-4 advantage in net points) that left her tumbling to the grass before joining Kerber in a long, respectful hug.
Kerber had previously beaten Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final.
The story line: If Williams’s pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title and eighth Wimbledon crown isn’t enough, there’s also her rocky yet remarkable return from a difficult childbirth less than a year ago. As The Post’s Liz Clarke detailed this week, her past year included “a recurrence of life-threatening blood clots after her emergency Caesarean section,” extended bed rest during which she could barely walk, and then a halting return to competition.
Because of her absence, she’s now ranked 181st in the world, making her “the lowest-ranked woman in the Open era to reach a semifinal at Wimbledon,” according to the tournament. She wasn’t given a seed at the French Open, prompting a debate about how tournaments should handle maternity leave for top female players. Wimbledon awarded Williams the 25th seed. The final will be just her 14th match of 2018.
— Kendra Andrews
Read more Wimbledon coverage from The Post: