Melbourne - It's been
two decades since Steffi Graf won her last Australian Open, but her presence
looms large over Saturday's final.
Serena Williams is one
match away from tying Graf's Open era record of 22 Grand Slam titles.
The only obstacle for
No 1-ranked Williams is Angelique Kerber, a 28-year-old German who is seeking
Graf's advice on how to win the biggest match of her life.
"Steffi, write me
please," Kerber said jokingly in an on-court interview after advancing to
the first Grand Slam final of her career.
Graf did just that, in
a text message, the No. 7-seeded Kerber said on Friday.
"She told me,
'Congrats,' and she is happy for me, and good luck in the finals."
Kerber has joked that
it's her national duty to protect the record of Graf, the last German to win
the Australian Open in 1994.
Over the course of the
two-week tournament, Graf's name has come up repeatedly in both Kerber's and
Williams' post-match news conferences.
Kerber has talked
about how she grew up watching Graf's matches and later studying them on
"She was my idol.
She still is my idol," said Kerber, adding that she remembers a lot of the
matches, how Graf moved, how she sliced, how she typically beat her opponents
Last year, she got to
hit with Graf.
Around the time of
Indian Wells, Kerber took a trip to Las Vegas, where Graf lives with her
husband, four-time Australian Open champion Andre Agassi.
Graf is now 46 and
has kept a mostly low-profile since retiring in 1999, preferring not to join
the so-called Legends matches that former pros play at Grand Slams.
"She is still in
shape and she is hitting very hard, and moving still like she was moving a few
years ago," said Kerber, who has been in the Top 10 for four years but
until this week had never advanced past a Grand Slam semi-final. "I was
really focusing. The intensity was very high."
Graf also gave her
advice, which she is trying to live by.
"She taught me
actually that I'm on a good way, and try to believe in myself. I was trying to
do it in the last few months," Kerber said.
Kerber got off to a
strong start this year, reaching the final in Brisbane where she lost to
Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion. When the two met again,
in the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Kerber won in straight sets.
Kerber has played Williams
six times before, and beaten her once, in 2012, which gives her confidence.
"She is going out
there to try to win again another Grand Slam, making history," Kerber
said. She expects to be nervous but says the real pressure is on Williams.
"I'm feeling good. I'm healthy. I'm fit. I will try to win against her.
That's for sure."
Williams was reminded at one news conference that when she played Graf in 1999,
she referred to her as "Miss Graf," out of respect.
Before Graf retired
that year, she and Williams played twice. Graf won the first time, and Williams
who was just 17 won the second.
But Williams is trying
not to think too much about matching Graf's 22 career titles.
block it out. I was one off last year, too. If I don't win on Saturday, I'll
still be one off," Williams said.
Last year, Williams
won the year's first three Grand Slams - the Australian Open, French Open and
Wimbledon - and headed into the US Open trying to become the first player since
Graf in 1988 to collect all four titles in one season.
She fell two matches
short, losing in the US open semifinals to Roberta Vinci, in one of the biggest
upsets in the history of women's tennis. She took an extended break after the
loss, saying in Melbourne that she needed several months off to recover
physically and mentally.
She has returned to
the Australian Open as the overwhelming favorite, serving as strongly as ever
and playing with intense power and focus.
Williams was asked if
she remembered what Kerber must feel like to be playing in her first Grand Slam
final at the 1999 US Open.
"I felt really
good my first final. I just had this feeling before the tournament started that
I was going to do really well there," Williams said. "She might have
the same feeling. I don't know. But it felt good."