Angelique Kerber followed up becoming the number one ranked player in the world by winning her first U.S. Open to put a bow on her magical season. The 28-year old German needed to be at her best to outlast first-time slam finalist Karolina Pliskova in three thrilling sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
The Open Final lasted two hours and seven minutes. It was a second consecutive year that American Serena Williams wasn’t playing for the title. After being shocked by Roberta Vinci in three sets during last year’s semifinal, she was eliminated by the powerful 24-year old rising Czech Pliskova, who out-served and outhit her to win in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (5). Pliskova had also previously taken out Venus Williams in a breathtaking three sets, saving a match point. She also beat 18-year old future star Ana Konjuh in the quarters.
Entering today’s women’s final, much of the talk was about Kerber finally reaching number one on the WTA Tour. In what’s been a career year that’s included an Australian Open victory over Serena, a Wimbledon runner-up losing to Serena and an Olympic silver medal in Rio losing to surprising gold medalist Monica Puig (first round exit at Open), a determined Kerber wouldn’t let the powerful Pliskova break through with her first major.
After dropping the first set 6-4 to a much sharper Kerber, who wouldn’t let her break serve, Pliskova turned up the heat in a better second. Ratcheting up her serve, she was tougher to break for the pesky Kerber, who preferred longer rallies. The taller Pliskova went bigger slugging 17 winners from the baseline. The more she imposed her will, the harder it became for Kerber to offset the relentless pressure. Eventually, Pliskova finally broke Kerber in the seventh game. She then held for 5-3. Following a Kerber hold, Pliskova served out the set. An errant Kerber forehand forced the final set.
Early on, it was the more aggressive Pliskova who went up a break for 4-3 with plenty of support from the capacity Ashe Stadium. With special guest Devils hockey star Patrik Elias supporting her in her players’ box, things were looking good. But even after Kerber finally showed frustration slamming her racket during the break, the feisty German broke back easily for 4-all. Pliskova showed both nerves and sluggishness misfiring on three shots to donate the break back.
In her next service game, Kerber rallied from Love-30 down to hold. They key shot was a running forehand down the line during an extended rally to set up game point. Following a hold for 5-4, the pressure was squarely on the younger Pliskova. Four years Kerber’s junior, she had never been on this stage before. However, she beat Kerber a month ago in Cincinnati 3 and 1. This was a different set of circumstances.
Under the spotlight, it was a more weary Pliskova who didn’t have enough left in the tank. Despite being so close to a winner take all tiebreaker, she was broken at love by a resilient Kerber. More misses were her undoing. Love-30 down, she set up the next point beautifully. She had a short backhand with an open court, but netted it setting up triple match point.
Three championship points for Kerber. She cashed in on another Pliskova unforced error. Her 18th and final error gave an emotional Kerber her first U.S. Open championship- confirming that she was a legit world number one. After a nice exchange at the net with Pliskova who congratulated her, Kerber climbed into the stands to celebrate with her coach, family and friends.
A nice trophy presentation on ESPN showed the present and future of women’s tennis. Kerber is the best player in the world. She earned it. As for whether or not Williams will regain number one and finally win a record 23rd major, time will tell. She probably will. However, the amount of excuses Chrissie Evert made for her for losing to Pliskova was sad. Not enough credit was given to Pliskova, who served big and was better than Serena in their semifinal. One in which Williams was clearly hobbled by the end on one leg, which explains her rare double fault on match point. She had two in the breaker.
One thing is clear. Pliskova has the look of a future slam winner. With the big serve and huge game with some natural instincts and touch at the net, she doesn’t look like a fluke. Expect more from her in 2017. As for Kerber, the German became the first lefty since Monica Seles to win the U.S. Open (’92). She’s also the first German world number one since tennis legend Steffi Graf, who still shares the modern day record of 22 slams with Serena.
In a year where Maria Sharapova was suspended for use of a banned substance and Victoria Azarenka became pregnant, the future of women’s tennis stepped up. It’s no longer just Serena anymore. Kerber is number one. Pliskova should be heard from. Garbine Muguruza broke through at the French Open.
Hopefully, next year Petra Kvitova will rediscover what made her a two-time Wimbledon champ. She battled Kerber in the fourth round but lost in straight sets. American Madison Keys remains the future for American tennis. Will she finally improve the rest of her game enough to break through. We’ll see.