WIMBLEDON -- Two years ago at this very place, on serve and chasing Serena Williams 6-5 in the opening set of the Wimbledon final, Angelique Kerber double-faulted and handed the set to Williams, who went on to win her seventh title here, 7-5, 6-3. That is the kind of mistake Kerber cannot afford to make again Saturday, when she faces Williams for the eighth time in her career, and only the second time on grass.
"It is a completely new match [this year]," Kerber said after defeating Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals Thursday. "We both learned a lot. [Serena's] coming back. For me also, I'm coming back from 2017. I know that I have to play my best, best tennis to beat her, especially on the grass, on the Centre Court, where she won so many titles."
It's been two years and a lifetime since Williams, 36, and Kerber, 30, met on Centre Court. Since that Saturday, Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, became the winningest player of the Open era, regained the No. 1 world ranking, had a baby, got married and didn't play a tournament for 14 months. Kerber won the US Open two months later, but struggled throughout 2017. She dropped out of the top-20, failed to make another Slam final and fired her longtime coach.
But as much as Kerber will face a surging Williams on the upswing of her comeback from maternity leave Saturday, Williams, too, faces a resurgent Kerber, a player who is back in the top-10 and the No. 11 seed at Wimbledon.
"She's been playing really well," Williams said after defeating Julia Goerges in straight sets to book her ticket to a 10th Wimbledon final. "I think grass is [Kerber's] best surface. She knows how to play on this court. She does it so well."
Since first facing each other in the opening round of the US Open 11 years ago (Williams won), Kerber has defeated the younger Williams sister only twice, and both times on hard court. At the 2016 Australian Open, Williams was attempting to tie Steffi Graf's Open era record with major win No. 22, but it was Kerber who left Melbourne with a Grand Slam title, beating Williams 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the final. Six months later, Williams returned the favor, beating Kerber at Wimbledon to earn her 22nd major.
"I love playing her," Williams said of Kerber that day. "She's such a great opponent. She really brings out great tennis in me."
Saturday, Williams is again playing to tie an all-time record. With Grand Slam win No. 24, she will equal Margaret Court as the all-time Slams leader and ditch the Open era asterisk. If Williams wins, she will become the oldest Grand Slam singles champion in the Open era, and only the fourth mother ever to win a major. But it will be no easy road. Williams is playing in her seventh match in 12 days, which is the total number of matches she's played since returning from maternity leave in March. Kerber is the best player she's faced this fortnight, and both women have dropped only one set so far this tournament.
After withdrawing from her fourth-round match at the French Open with a pectoral injury last month, Williams' serve has been a potent weapon this tournament. She's won 89 percent of her service games and 80 percent of points on first serve. She's also pounded 44 aces, seen 50 percent of her first serves unreturned and hammered a 122 mph ace against Camila Giorgi in the quarters.
Kerber is going to need every bit of her powerful return game and relentless hitting to force Williams to make mistakes. In her first six matches, Kerber has looked steady and resilient, gobbling up balls at the baseline like a videogame character. For the record, she's committed only 12 double faults this tournament, and only one since the fourth round. Equally important will be the mental game that goes on between these two women. But if any player tips the scales in that category, it's Williams, who is enjoying her matches as much as ever.
"Serena is one of the best players in the world," said Kerber, who could become the first German to lift the Wimbledon trophy since Steffi Graf in 1996. "We had so many great matches in the last years. To see her back, it's great. She's a fighter. She's a champion. That's why she is where she is now."