Saturday, September 10, 2016

Kerber's racket does the talking: "I'm number 1!"

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the dramatic evolution of Angelique Kerber's career. It didn't really surprise me when, five months later, she won the Australian Open. Her runner-up result at Wimbledon this year only emphasized how confidently the German star had settled herself into the tiny spot of turf that only champions can occupy. Then came the silver medal at the Olympic Games.

Then came today. Playing in a breathtaking U.S. Open final and down a break in the third set against breakout star Karolina Pliskova, Kerber remembered who she was. She steadied herself as only champions can do, and finished the match with a very dramatic flourish--holding at love, then breaking at love. It doesn't get any more "I'm in charge here!" than that.

It didn't occur to me that this match would be anything but high quality, though I did expect some jangling nerves from Pliskova, who only recently left her rut behind and greeted her immense potential with a confident smile. Nerves there were, but not for too long. The big-serving Czech had some problems finding her way around the opening set, in which she made errors she wouldn't normally make. This is to be expected when a player finds herself in a major final for the first time in her career.

After losing that first set 3-6, Pliskova became both more accurate and more creative. Moving better than her reputation has allowed, the Cincinnati champion relaxed and began the task of throwing Kerber out of her rhythm. Both women can hit electrifying groundstrokes, and--while those shots are part of Pliskova's bread and butter game--the Czech player showed some finesse at the net, and was especially impressive when she broke Kerber with a sweet lob she lifted from the ground. Pliskova took the second set 6-4.

The third set had everything but a tiebreak, and I'm a little surprised it didn't have that. Pliskova, by now a portrait of momentum, broke Kerber in the third game. Kerber broke her back. Serving at 4-all, the Australian Open champion held at love. I still didn't look like it was over to me, but then Kerber broke Pliskova at love, and it was over, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

Pliskova was better at the net in this match, and Kerber had a better second serve. Pliskova hit 40 winners, but made 47 unforced errors, while Kerber hit 21 winners but made only 17 unforced errors.

The path to Kerber's victory was unusual. When Pliskova upset Serena Williams in the semifinals, Kerber became number 1 in the world, and entered the final as the new ranking-topper, so today's win was a large exclamation point to go with that number. The German star is the first woman in 19 years to win both hard court majors in the same year; Martina Hingis did it in 1997.

What a year it has been for Angelique Kerber. She defended her title in Stuttgart, was the runner-up at Wimbledon (losing to Williams), won a silver medal in Rio, won the U.S. Open, and became number 1 in the world. Not bad for someone commentators and sportswriters used to dismiss as a journeywoman.

The other part of this exciting story has to do with Karolina Pliskova. Prior to this year, the very talented Czech--who has recently taken over Petra Kvitova's role as the Czech Republic's very kick-ass Fed Cup leader--couldn't get past the third round of a major. She had some titles, but they weren't big ones. Then, just a few weeks ago, she won Cincinnati (beating Kerber in the final), then came to Flushing Meadows and defeated both Williams sisters; only three other women have ever done that at a major tournament.

This isn't the last final in which we'll see Pliskova; she has finally broken through to a new place on the tour. Her performance today was outstanding.

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