That is the way it was for a woman who will move to No. 1 in the world on Monday after an annual campaign at the majors that was clearly second to none. Angelique Kerber had not lost a set in six U.S. Open matches on her way to a final round appointment against Karolina Pliskova, and she commenced the final with the same commanding sense of ball control, self conviction, deep concentration and unflagging professionalism. Kerber, of course, has grown accustomed over the course of this year to competing for the premier prizes, time and time again. She stepped into her first major final at the Australian Open and won it handsomely, cutting down Serena Williams in the final.
After a brief and understandable slump over the end of winter and on through spring, Kerber reemerged dynamically on the lawns of Wimbledon, reaching her first final on the lawns, losing a very well played contest against Serena. At the Olympic Games, Kerber took the silver medal, surprisingly losing the final to a madly inspired Monica Puig but playing outstanding tennis leading up to that defeat. On she went to Cincinnati, and Kerber had a chance there to win the title and move to No. 1 in the world, only to lose to an inspired Pliskova.
But that string of consistency served Kerber well at the U.S. Open, and her run to the final was smooth, impressive and uncluttered. She had a clear view of where she was going and what she wanted. She started her contest with Pliskova in Arthur Ashe Stadium performing with her customary precision, court craft and strategic acumen. Kerber plainly benefitted from having played the two Grand Slam tournament finals along with the battle for the Olympic gold in Rio. Her comfort in the New York surroundings on the hard courts was strikingly evident.
Kerber sensed that Pliskova was nervous in the opening game of the clash, and wasted no time exploiting the situation. At 15-30, Pliskova had a setup forehand volley that she sent wide. She served an ace but then, at 30-40, misfortune struck. Pliskova broke a string, and had to go for a slice on her next shot. It landed wide. Kerber had the immediate break for 1-0. Down break point in the second game, Kerber was poised, driving a forehand winner down the line off a short ball for an outright winner. She eventually held on for 2-0. After Pliskova held at love in the third game, Kerber was pressed hard before holding for 3-1, fending off two break points in that game without getting rattled.
Pliskova struggled to hold for 2-3 but Kerber remained implacable, holding for 4-2. After both players held to make it 5-3 for the left-handed German, Kerber sealed the set. Pliskova double faulted at 30-30 in that ninth game and then Kerber connected beautifully with a forehand passing shot winner down the line. In 40 efficient minutes, the No. 2 seed had built a one set lead, and seemingly she was headed inexorably to a straight sets victory.
And yet, Pliskova had her bearings. After the understandable tension she experienced in the opening game of the match, she had settled down and started playing her brand of high octane tennis. Her first serve is one of the best in the women’s game, and she has released more aces than anyone on the WTA Tour this season. Her flat forehand is her signature shot. And against Kerber she was firing away off the backhand magnificently, generating remarkable pace, and taking control of rallies by virtue of her two way aggression from the backcourt.
At 1-1 in the second set, Pliskova reached break point but Kerber produced a devastatingly accurate two-handed backhand crosscourt that was unanswerable. The German held on for 2-1.Both players held until 3-3. At 30-30 in that seventh game, Pliskova caught the sideline with a scorching crosscourt backhand that gave her a break point, and she converted immediately with a drop shot setting up a gorgeous forehand lob volley winner. Pliskova was now performing with controlled aggression and much more consistency than she had exhibited in the opening set.
She held for 5-3. Two games later, she served for the set, falling behind 15-30. But a forehand crosscourt approach provoked an errant lob from Kerber. Then Pliskova aced Kerber out wide. On set point, Pliskova tested her strength against Kerber’s, and was rewarded for her gumption. Pliskova drove a forehand down the line to the Kerber forehand, and the German missed on the run. Set to Pliskova 6-4. It was one set all.
Now the stage was set for only the third three set U.S. Open women’s final in the last 21 played. It was well worth following. Kerber was undismayed by being forced into a final set for the first time all tournament long, but Pliskova, too, was ready for it. Both women held at 15 to make it 1-1. But Kerber buckled somewhat in the third game. At 15-15, she meekly sent an inside out forehand into the net. After Pliskova over-anxiously netted a sitter off the forehand, Kerber erred once more off the forehand. She rallied to deuce, but Pliskova garnered another break point and made good on it. A deep backhand down the line return from Pliskova elicited a backhand crosscourt long by Kerber.
Pliskova had broken for 2-1 in the final set. An ace out wide at 40-15 in the following game enabled the No.10 seed to reach 3-1. From a set down, Pliskova had gone up a break in the final set, standing three holds away from a first major title and a much larger reputation. But Kerber wanted no part of that scenario, not in the least. She held at love with an ace for 2-3 and then, probing on each and every point, systematically picking her rival apart, Kerber broke at 30 for 3-3. In the seventh game, Kerber found herself down 0-30, but Pliskova gave away the next point with a wild error off the backhand. At 15-30 Kerber induced an errant backhand return. Back at 30-30, the German played her most picture perfect shot of the entire match. Stretched out wide on the forehand side, she curled a forehand down the line that landed on the line for a glorious winner.
It was 4-3 for Kerber. Both players were feeling the heat, literally and figuratively. The humidity was overbearing, and Pliskova was fading physically and deteriorating mentally as well. Kerber, contrastingly, was strong, resolute, durable and indomitable. It was as if she had been waiting for this moment, hoping she could demonstrate her fortitude, knowing that this was a time when she would prove her mettle beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pliskova precariously survived a two deuce game, holding on her third game point for 4-4. That was a brave stand from a player who knew full well how little she had left. Kerber raced to 30-0 in the ninth game, released a forehand down the line winner for 40-0 and held at love as Pliskova was off the mark with a backhand crosscourt return wide. Now serving to stay in the match, Pliskova never really had a chance. Kerber passed her down the line off the forehand to make it 0-15. A deep crosscourt forehand from the German drew a backhand wide down the line from Pliskova: 0-30. Pliskova then bungled a backhand drive volley into the net, and was way off the mark with an inside out forehand.
Kerber had collected eight points in a row to finish off a well deserved 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 triumph, establishing herself as the first left-handed U.S. Open champion since Monica Seles won her second crown in 1992. Moreover, Kerber is only the fourth left-handed woman in the history of the U.S. Championships/U.S. Open to win the singles title. Only three women in the modern era of the sport have won the Open as southpaws: Kerber, Seles, and Martina Navratilova, the champion in 1983-84 and again in 1986-87. On another interesting historical note, Kerber will become on Monday the oldest ever to take over the WTA No. 1 spot at the age of 28. Those rankings were established in 1975.
As Kerber said after her win over Pliskova, “I mean, I was always dreaming of being No. 1 and to be in the Grand Slams. I’m not 18 so I was always trying to improve my game. I knew that I have the game to beat the best players and was just being patient and working really hard. And now to see that the work pays off, this is actually the best feeling, because I was a lot of hours on the practice courts, sweating and everything, and you are just playing for this moment to be on the Center Court in the final and with this amazing crowd. So this is what I was always dreaming for.”
She will realize many more dreams in the years ahead. I believe she will be contending until the age of 32 for more majors. Kerber will win at least a couple more Grand Slam championships. She will conclude her career with at least five in her collection. But now she can stop and smell the roses after an outstanding 2016 campaign of consistency and commitment. She is entirely worthy of succeeding Serena Williams at the top in the world of women’s tennis. Kerber has become an authentic champion, and a player who will keep asking more of herself. The U.S. Open victor is a woman of substance and character, and a credit to her profession. The powers that be in women’s tennis should be delighted that she validated her Australian Open victory with another win at the season’s last major. She is entirely worthy of the honor.