MELBOURNE, Jan 30 (Reuters) - On a night when Steffi Graf loomed large over Rod Laver Arena, an inspired Angelique Kerber stunned Serena Williams in a three-set classic to win the Australian Open on Saturday and become Germany's first grand slam champion in 17 years.
In the ultimate tribute to her childhood hero, Kerber foiled Williams's bid to match the German great's tally of grand slam titles, closing out a magnificent 6-4 3-6 6-4 win in her first major final.
The seventh seed's triumph secured her nation's first grand slam win since Graf raised her 22nd and final trophy at the 1999 French Open.
"Yeah, I think I helped Steffi right now," a beaming Kerber told reporters.
"This is the first big tournament of the year, and I won it, the first grand slam. It sounds crazy, but I can say I'm a grand slam champion now."
Kerber sought inspiration from Graf during a trip to the 46-year-old's Las Vegas home last year and put in a performance worthy of her mentor.
She defended brilliantly throughout the two-hour and eight-minute cliff-hanger, showing nerves of steel to fend off Williams who had roared back from 5-2 down in the deciding set.
In a final game riven with tension, Williams succumbed on the first match point with a volley that floated well past the baseline.
Kerber was already flopping to the ground before the ball had landed, and she flung her racquet away as a packed crowd of 15,000 roared in elation and disbelief.
The 34-year-old Williams has no liking for runner-up finishes at grand slams, and her defeat was the first in a final since her shock loss to Sam Stosur at the 2011 U.S. Open.
Her hopes of pulling off a rare calendar grand slam were left in tatters once again, only four months after they were crushed in the U.S. Open semi-finals by Italian Roberta Vinci.
GRACIOUS IN DEFEAT
Williams was nonetheless gracious in defeat, walking directly to Kerber's side of the court to embrace her warmly as the champion wept with joy.
"She had an attitude that I think a lot of people can learn from: just to always stay positive and to never give up," Williams told reporters.
"I was really inspired by that. So, honestly, she's a really good girl. If I couldn't win, I'm happy she did.
"I mean, every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life. As much as I would like to be a robot, I'm not. I try to."
It was instead an all-too-human display by Williams in an opening set laden with 23 unforced errors -- 20 more than her opponent.
Kerber broke her twice to wrap up the set before Williams regrouped to send the match into a decider, accompanied by screams of "C'mon!"
The German played majestically in the decider's marathon sixth game, taking Williams's serve on her fifth break point to move to a 5-2 lead.
The American, summoning the belief forged from 25 grand slam finals, stormed back to break Kerber as she served for the match.
But the German responded brilliantly, felling Williams in a furious baseline rally to raise her one and only match point.
The first left-hander to win in Melbourne since Monica Seles's 1999 championship, Kerber proved the world number one can be beaten, even when fit and firing.
Other challengers will draw hope that they, too, might share in the grand slam spoils as the 34-year-old icon edges closer to retirement.
For Kerber, however, it was a triumph long in the making. It arrived in her 33rd main draw appearance and at a tournament that could have ended for her in the first round.
She had to save a match point in a three-set duel with Japan's Misaki Doi and later remarked that she had "one leg in the plane."
A former world number five in 2012, Kerber will soar to second when the rankings are updated.
"I think my phone is exploding right now," said Kerber, who received personal congratulations from Graf and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I have so many emotions it's like crazy."
In the late match at Rod Laver Arena, Jamie Murray, men's single finalist Andy's elder brother, won his first men's doubles title with Bruno Soares after they beat Daniel Nestor and Radek Stepanek 2-6 6-4 7-5.
The younger Murray will seek his first Australian Open title at Melbourne Park after four fruitless trips to the final when he takes on defending champion and his Melbourne Park nemesis Novak Djokovic.
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