Serena Williams’ Inspiring Defeat

CREDIT: Aaron Favila, AP

Angelique Kerber holds the trophy with runner-up Serena Williams after winning their women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016.

Serena Williams lost the Australian Open final on Saturday in Melbourne, falling 6-4 3-6 6-4 in a thrilling, high-quality match to No. 7, Angelique Kerber.

While Kerber has been in the top 10 for four years, won big WTA titles before, and even notched a victory over Williams a few years ago, this was still a stunning upset. Coming into this match, Williams was 21-4 in major finals, and she’d won her last eight in a row.

She also had a (rather unfair) reputation as being “the sorest loser.”

But Williams was nothing but class after championship point on Saturday, despite the heartbreak of again falling short of tying Steffi Graf with 22 major titles, the most in the Open Era. As soon her volley went long, she immediately went to the other side of the net to congratulate the overwhelmed and elated German.

Williams seemed genuinely thrilled for Kerber during the trophy ceremony, which is no easy feat — tennis is one of the only sports where the loser has to give a speech in front of the audience moments after their defeat and then stand by as the champion is crowned. It’s a pretty brutal ritual.

In her post-match press conference, Kerber applauded Serena’s sportsmanship:

Q. How many players in your careers, after the loss, have come to the other side on the court and congratulated you?

ANGELIQUE KERBER: Not many. I think Serena’s really a champion. She told me after that she’s really happy for me and that I really deserved it.

So, yeah, you saw that she is really, really a great person. She is, yeah, like I said, making history. She is inspiring a lot of people. So it’s like you said, yeah, what she did, it’s like just great from her.

When Williams was younger, she was known for being surly in defeat and she rarely gave her opponents credit when they beat her. But anyone who follows tennis closely knows that she has become much more gracious throughout the years.

Serena Williams Angelique Kerber

CREDIT: Andrew Brownbill, AP

Losing in a major final is a different ballgame, however. The last time she lost in a major final, back at the 2011 U.S. Open when she fell to Samantha Stosur, Williams was panned for her bad sportsmanship due to an argument she had with the umpire Eva Asderaki — though it’s worth noting she came to Stosur’s side of the net to congratulate her for the victory on that occasion as well.

But on Saturday, Williams kept her composure throughout the match, and gave Kerber — who was clearly the best player on this day and will be ranked No. 2 on Monday — plenty of praise in press, even though she was still clearly disappointed with the loss.

Q. You looked almost as happy as she did.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Really (smiling)? I should get into acting.

No, I was actually really happy for her. She’s been around a really long time. We’ve had a number of matches. I’ve beaten her a lot.

She played so well today. She had an attitude that I think a lot of people can learn from: just to always stay positive and to never give up.

I was really inspired by that. So, honestly, she’s a really good girl. If I couldn’t win, I’m happy she did.

Williams’ attitude in a crushing defeat is inspiring, as is her viewpoint on the loss. It would be easy to understand if the 34-year-old felt discouraged after being outplayed, or if she was lacking motivation and looking towards retirement after achieving so much in her career. But instead, Williams sounded more determined than ever to win more majors and extend her reign as the best player in the world.

“Honestly, [this loss is] something to learn from, just to try to get better,” she said.

Considering Williams is still No. 1 in the world by a wide margin and played some of the best tennis of her career during her first five matches in Melbourne, the fact that she’s still so committed to improvement is bad news for the rest of the WTA.