Call this year’s Bank of the West Classic, the WTA tournament played on the Stanford campus, a tale of three plot lines. The original story line was a likely regal procession. WTA queen bee Serena Williams was the defending champ and headliner, expected to extend her dominance of 2015. But then Williams dropped out due to injury. Exit plot line one. Williams’ place atop the marquee was taken by new number one and two seeds, counterpuncher Caroline Wozniacki and the tactically nimble Agnieszka Radwanska. But Wozniacki was upset in the round of 16 by the tenacious American lefty, Varvara Lepchenko. Radwanska went out in the quarters in a three-set gem versus another lefty, the adroit Angelique Kerber. Exit, plot line two.
Enter plot line three, a final between Kerber and Karolina Pliskova. Each has had a fine 2015. Coming into the match, Kerber had won three titles and Pliskova had reached four finals (one title). One of Kerber’s victories had come at Pliskova’s expense, a third-set tiebreaker win this June on the grass of Birmingham. But it is amazing in tennis how only four years difference in an age can define the difference between realities and possibilities.
The 27-year-old Kerber is at once counterpuncher and shotmaker. At her best, it can make her an unnerving opponent, as she’s adept at both scrambling and then coming up with sharp angles, be it an angled crosscourt forehand, a delayed forehand bent up the line or a forceful backhand crosscourt. Yet for all of Kerber’s many skills, it appears at this point she has crested. Her serve often betrays her, the result of a poor toss and a motion worse than many club players. Many times in rallies, Kerber fails to take advantage of the openings she’s created by backing off the net. Right alongside this is an intermittent tendency to pout, get negative and spiral into passivity. A top 20 player now for five years, it appears by now Kerber’s star has reached its ascent.
Pliskova’s run at Stanford guaranteed her a first-time spot in the top ten, quite a distance from a year ago when she was barely inside the top 50. At age 23, she appears the shape of things to come – tall, powerful, forceful, most notably in her ability to crack her backhand and strike massive serves from a very simple motion.
Kerber is the classic example of the player who makes you hit yet one more shot. Numerous fine scrambles and angled forehands helped her earn the first set 6-3. But Pliskova persevered. Even after bouncing her racquet off the court at 3-all in the second, Pliskova was able to grub out the second set, 7-5.
At 2-all in the third, it was uncertain who had goods to take match. Would Kerber defend her way to yet another sharp angle winner even as her legs grew wearier, hindering everything from the ground to her serve? Or would Pliskova step up by mixing up a slow shot with a big drive? In the end, as Pliskova proved she still needs more polishing, Kerber squeaked out the final set, 6-4. Pliskova had made a whopping 52 unforced errors, compared to only 14 for Kerber.
With the US Open three weeks away, it will be intriguing to see how the summer plays for each of these stylish players. Kerber remains an enigma. She’s now won surface-similar titles prior to the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. But in the two European Slams she lost in the third round. Granted, both losses came to the ascending Garbine Muguruza. But each loss also revealed how on many a day, Kerber’s passivity proves she can be physically and emotionally battered into submission. And the lackluster service motion doesn’t help. Kerber has spoken about the motivation she drew recently from spending time with her compatriot, Stephanie Graf. Let’s hope to continues to build on that in New York. For all her occasional sullenness, she can be an exciting player to watch (disclosure: I’m left-handed).
Pliskova, though, might well at this point have even more of an upside. The big serve and the laser backhand give signs of someone who can make a major run up the ranks. Perhaps. Is the forehand too flat and mechanical? How well does she command both footwork and, when necessary, footspeed? Will she park comfortably inside the top ten like her fellow flat-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych? Or can she go yet higher and repeatedly reach Grand Slam semis and finals? After all, while the WTA these days is ruled by a queen, many others are vying for their share of glory. Kerber today, Kerber tomorrow? The data so far says: questionable. Pliskova? More data needed.