On a sticky, humid day in New York City, summer roared once more. And so did Angelique Kerber.
US OPEN CHAMPION!!! WOW, I DID IT!!! pic.twitter.com/YpWv5A7jaM— Angelique Kerber (@AngeliqueKerber) September 10, 2016
2016, the "Season of Angie," has added yet another indelible image to the sport's collective memory bank.
The U.S. Open women's final contested between Kerber, playing in her third major final of the season, and maiden slam finalist Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, while not the "battle for #1" clash between the German and Serena Williams that many had been anticipating, was a very desirable match-up of players with opposing temperaments as well as game styles.
Kerber is a defensive mastermind and long distance runner rolled into one who has seen her career take full flight after committing to infusing her game with a more aggressive flavor, while Pliskova is an offensive-minded, big server who favors short points and openly admits that her biggest weakness has always been her court movement. Kerber's emotions have traditionally been worn on her sleeve, while Pliskova's are mostly kept close to the vest. Kerber has curtailed much of her old self-destructive streak, highlighted by inner and outer fits of anger that often proved to be her undoing. Pliskova, recognized for her decided lack of outward emotion between the lines, has never been accused of such an offense. Instead, as she struggled to escape her career-long 3rd Round glass ceiling at slam events (she came to New York as the only Top 20 player without a QF result at a major), her "underachievement" led some to wonder if she wasn't emotional ENOUGH.
Sigh. It's always something. Or at least it used to be. For while the two women had much that separated them, what they had in common was the recent feeling of discovery when it all began to "click."
In Kerber's case, it was over the course of the past two seasons after reuniting with former coach Torben Beltz early in 2015. After having her most successful "regular season" (four titles) a year ago, but seeing her results flag in the majors (a combined 6-4 record), she committed to the more aggressive approach in '16 that has turned her into the best big event player on tour over the past eight months. An Australian Open title run was followed by an appearance in the Wimbledon final before still another slam run at Flushing Meadows. It's all been the reward of a determined process. First came the will, then the hard work. The resulting belief in herself and her abilities made the work pay off, and Kerber's adherence to the established plan has made Melbourne anything but an anomaly, or something which she was satisfied with. Instead, it was the launching pad to a, well, Serena-like campaign.
But Kerber entered today's final still seeking her first "signature" victory since winning in Melbourne. Her only other title this season came in Stuttgart, while she'd lost out on Olympic Gold vs. Monica Puig in the Rio final and failed to initially grab the #1 ranking when she lost to Pliskova in the Cincinnati decider. Even while she was set to rise to #1 on Monday due to Serena's semifinal loss to the Czech, Kerber was looking to avoid the appearance of once more having "left something on the table," and to fail to emerge the victor again with Pliskova on the other side of the net would have created a whole new storyline to kick around, especially since the still-lingering memory of the Czech comforting Kerber after defeating her in Cincinnati and denying her even-earlier rise to #1 -- "Maybe next time," Karo said -- was viewed by some as having rankled Kerber.
It probably didn't, but she WAS using the word "revenge" heading into Saturday's match. So... maybe it did, after all? Either way, the moment has proven to be another (relatively minor) reason why the Most Interesting Tour in the World has lived up to the moniker at pretty much every turn in 2016, and it provided a unique subtext to their pairing in the final.
For Pliskova, after a few seasons of being at or near the top of the tour lists for titles, finals and aces, but without a breakout major event performance to her credit, the past month has provided a sudden life change when it comes to how she's viewed on the overall landscape of the WTA tour. Her decisions to buckle down and intensely work on improving her movement, while also cutting back on her sometimes-obscenely-overpacked schedule, has made her one of the stories of the summer. The early signs were there when she won her first grass court title at Nottingham, though disappointment at Wimbledon soon followed. The hard courts would turn out to be her true proving ground, as she grabbed her biggest career title in Cincinnati, defeating the world #10 (Sveta Kuznetsova), #2 (Kerber) and #3 (Garbine Muguruza), before heading to NYC and taking out #6 (Venus Williams, saving a MP) and #1 (Serena), blowing through her old artificial Round of 16 roadblock (every Czech must have SOME cross to bear on the road to success, after all) and becoming the first woman representing her nation to reach the U.S. Open final since 1993. Showing nary a hint of nerves along the way, quite possibly as a result of her fine Fed Cup work while becoming the on-court leader of the dominant Czech Republic squad as a result injury, illness, absence and Petra-itis amongst her (formerly) higher-ranked teammates, the suddenly super-confident Pliskova hasn't resembled her former "underachieving" self since she set foot in North America a few months ago.
With her own career-best ranking of #6 already in her back pocket come Monday, the next "logical step" for Pliskova was to simply win the final. A few weeks ago, that would have been the punchline to a bring-you-on-your-knees joke about the upcoming U.S. Open. But after a month of reputation-redefining results, it no longer seemed so funny. In fact, by defeating Kerber, Pliskova would join a small group of players to have defeated both the top two ranked players in the world en route to a slam title, and she'd be the first Czech to do it in New York since Hana Mandlikova in 1985.
Both had more "at stake" than just a slam singles title. For one woman, something had to give. And it did... but not until the very end.
The 1st set was characterized by the Pliskova serve failing to be as effective a weapon as it had been all summer. Missing on too many first serves (after being so accurate in the semis vs. Serena had led the way to an upset), and winning a very low percentage of points on her second, the Czech engaged in the sort of longer rallies that, as expected, favored Kerber. Still, she kept herself in the set by showing an unexpected willingness to move forward, as well as (mostly) good hands at the net. But it was one poor volley miss in the very first game of the match that proved to be key.
Pliskova, after having been in control of a rally, sent a ball flying in a poor volley attempt to fall behind 15/40 and hand Kerber the first break opportunity of the match. The Czech fired an ace on the first BP, but broke a string on her racket and missed on a drop shot to fall behind 1-0. She soon settled on serve, holding at love in game #3, and challenged Kerber in her own service games. The German saved a BP in game #2, then two more in game #4. Pliskova got to 30/30 on game #6, as well, but Kerber held again for 4-2, keeping the advantage she'd gained in the opening minutes of play.
It appeared as if the missed volley on the fourth point of the match was going to (essentially) decide the entire set, and it did. Sort of. Serving at 3-5, a Pliskova double-fault gave Kerber a set point at 30/40. Flashing a handful of her special skills in a singles point, Kerber raced to reach a Pliskova volley, the turned her defense to offense with a forehand winner down the line to end the 1st set just as it had started, with a break of the Pliskova serve. In the 6-3 set, Kerber had committed just three unforced errors to Pliskova's seventeen, while the Czech's second serve win percentage was hovering around 30%.
Kerber was 44-0 in 2016 after winning the 1st set, but Pliskova's summer was going too well to let it end so quickly without showing why she was playing in this match in the first place.
In the 2nd set, the Czech needed to improve her play. And she did. Her first serve percentage went up, and she continued to move forward and attempt to pressure Kerber. In her opening serve game, again, a Pliskova hold was in jeopardy as things reached deuce. This time, though, she put it away with a smash at the net and a forehand winner for 1-1. Looking for an opening to find a way to take the 2nd set and extend things to a 3rd, but with time running out since Kerber couldn't be expected to produce enough errors to improve her chances, the Czech continued to fail to take advantage of the opportunities she did have. In game #3, she failed to convert another BP (0/4 for the match), and couldn't budge Kerber after taking a 15/30 lead on the German's serve two games later. But, finally, in game #7, it happened. At 30/30, Pliskova reached BP with a crosscourt backhand that Kerber could only barely get a racket on, then followed up a big second serve return with a half-volley get and lob to break and take a 4-3 lead. With a conversion rate of 21-of-26 at the net, Pliskova was showing yet another unexpected side of her game. And it was working.
Pliskova briefly wavered one game later, but came back from 15/30 down to hold for 5-3. With Kerber showing signs of tightness as her error total increased, Pliskova got back to deuce from 15/40 down, but the German held and forced her to serve things out. Once more, the Czech fell behind 15/30, but she held firm just as she did in potentially stressful situations vs. both Williams Sisters. Firing her first ace of the set, she reached set point and held to take the 2nd at 6-4 without having had to face a BP since dropping serve to end the 1st.
The Open final was heading to three sets for the third time in five years, but also for just the third time in the last TWENTY-ONE years. The battle-of-opposites was proving to be as irresistible as it had seemed to be. Having traded sets, the wait for SOMETHING to give officially began.
All tournament long, Pliskova had risen in the moment of truth. In the 3rd set, she held at love to level things at 1-1. In game #3, errors were coming off Kerber's racket, while the Czech was simultaneously calm and aggressive. Up 15/30 on the German's serve, Pliskova's indecision allowed a ball to bounce near the net rather that take it out of the air, then she dumped her shot to make it 30/30 rather than hold double BP. But a Kerber error bailed her out and gave her a BP, anyway. On BP #2, a Kerber error off a deep Pliskova return secured the break of serve. Up 2-1 and serving next, Pliskova clenched her fist as she returned to the changeover area, while Kerber slammed her racket.
It seemed as if the Czech's summer rise would continue, once again at Kerber's expense. But Kerber came into the day as the soon-to-be-#1 for good reason. The German's belief in herself had played out of the course of this season, as well as last. And it was her greatest preparation for the battle -- her fitness -- that would prove to be the key one down the stretch.
Pliskova fired an ace to hold for 3-1, but Kerber then held at love. Kerber took a 15/30 lead in game #6, and Pliskova missed on a backhand down the line on BP to lose her small but precious advantage in the set.
The Czech seemed prepared to take it back, though, hitting out on her shots while Kerber seemed tentative. She led love/30 on Kerber's serve in game #7, but back-to-back errors got things back to 30/30. As fatigue began to set in with Pliskova, Kerber's muscle memory of a career season kicked in, re-lighting her inner fire as all that she's done over past the two years to get there, once again, came to bear. The German blasted a forehand winner into the deep corner to reach game point, pumping her fists and raising her leg to reproduce a pose seen so often in Melbourne eight months ago. A Pliskova forehand error finished off a Kerber hold for 4-3.
Pliskova led 30/love a game later, but back-to-back forehand errors again placed the game in jeopardy. She held for 4-4, but she was tiring. Bending over at the waist numerous times in the closing games, it was clear that she NEEDED to hold just two more times to get things to a TB, where her big serve might give her a final advantage.
But she'd never get there, as Pliskova had finally reached the end of the best summer of her life.
Kerber held at love for 5-4, forcing Pliskova to serve to stay in the match. She fell behind love/30 with a backhand error, then netted a tired backhand volley to give Kerber triple MP. A wild crosscourt forehand error brought down the curtain on a 6-3/4-6/6-4 final, as the "next time" proved to be the charm for Kerber, who was soon on her back on the court at the close of a grand slam for the second time this season.
The only of her three 2016 slam finals that she didn't win was at Wimbledon, so it was fitting that Kerber then acted as if she was back in London, climbing through the stands into her Players Box to hug Beltz, her mom and other Team Angie members. She then did a virtual surfing of the crowd as she was led back to the court via a winding path through the aisles between the Ashe Stadium spectators, high-fiving a few along the way.
For Pliskova, even with the loss, it was a summer of distinction that very well may change her career forever. Gone are all the old questions. Now it's all about the answers, as in those that will come to the query, "What's next?" For a player who this past week became just the fourth woman to defeat both Venus & Serena in the same slam, it's worth noting that she's now just the fourth player ever to defeat the Sisters in the same tournament (slam or otherwise) but STILL end up not lifting the championship trophy. For some, it could be a juxtaposition difficult to forget, or forgive, oneself for. But you don't get such a feeling with Pliskova. If she's proven anything this summer it's that whatever "issues" she had when it came to living up to her potential, none of them seemed to be between her ears. This run feels more like a first step, not a simple, brief flash. She has consistently sounded both grounded and confident over the course of her summer run, cognizant of her games strengths, but also its liabilities... and having shown a true desire to work to remove the latter from the equation.
In a way, she's sort of like Kerber, a little less than two years ago. So maybe they're not that different, after all.
While the city was sweet for Karolina, Kerber is now the apple of New York's eye. The oldest player, at 28, to be a first-time #1-ranked player, she's a walking, talking example of the "long game" that has now become the norm in the sport. She was no instant success. No phenom. She's gotten here because she wanted it more than most, and worked ever harder to prove it. One has to think she'll work just as hard, or harder, in her attempts to stay there.
Yeah, that sounds like someone that New York City could get behind. And the same goes for everyone else, too.
=DAY 13 NOTES=
...elsewhere on Saturday...
- The girls singles final is set, and it'll be a Bannerette vs. a Slovak.
#5-seed Kayla Day defeated #7 Bianca Andreescu (CAN) in three sets, dropping the 1st 7-5, then winning twelve of the final fifteen games in a 5-7/6-1/6-2 victory. She'll face #13 Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, who defeated Day's fellow Bannerette, #8 Sonya Kenin by a 6-7(2)/7-5/7-6(3) scoreline, firing off twenty-three aces in the process. Kenin was the girls runner-up to Dalma Galfi at Flushing Meadows in 2015, and her loss prevented an all-U.S. final for the first time since 1992, when Lindsay Davenport defeated Julie Steven.
The last U.S. girl to win the Open title was Samantha Crawford in 2012, while the last Slovak was Kristina Kucova in 2007. Crawford was the last Bannerette to be crowned a junior champ at any of the majors, while Slovak Tereza Mihalikova won in Melbourne last year (and returned to the final in January, as well) and another, Kristina Schmiedlova, was the Wimbledon RU in 2014.
The doubles title went to wild cards Jada Myii Hart & Ena Shibahara, who won an all-American final against Day & Caroline Dolehide, 4-6/6-2 [13-11]. They're the first home winners since Gabby Andrews & Taylor Townsend won in New York in 2012.
- NCAA champion Danielle Collins became the third winner of the American Collegiate Invitational at Flushing Meadows today. The University of Virginia star defeated Michigan's Ronit Yurovsky in the final today, 6-4/6-4.
- Meanwhile, Kristyna Pliskova will ALSO play for HER biggest career title in China on Sunday. The other Czech twin has advanced to the final of the WTA 125 Series event in Dalian, where she'll face Japan's Misa Eguchi.
Her biggest title so far is a $75K challenger claimed on the grass in Nottingham in 2014, one of her nine career ITF titles. Of course, KAROLINA won a WTA tour title in Nottingham earlier this summer.
Kristyna's time in New York was shorter this summer, as she lost in the Open qualifying tournament.
Oh, and as far as telling them apart, the tattoos are the easiest tell. Karolina has the tribal-style markings on her left thigh and upper left arm, while Kristyna's is on her left forearm.
- The Wheelchair Tennis event has started in Rio. So far, no big surprises.
So happy to have won my first match here 61 62. Next up I will play the Brazilian no.1 ???? pic.twitter.com/BNznjcWrXw— Jordanne Whiley MBE (@jordannejoyce92) September 10, 2016
#1-seeded Jiske Griffioen is set to face Brit Lucy Shuker in the most interesting 2nd Round match-up.
WORTH NOTING ON DAY 13: Not only is Kerber the oldest first-time #1 ranked player, but her maiden tour title four years ago makes her by far the latest-bloomer ever to be ranked #1. Of the twenty-two woman to be ranked #1 on the tour's computer, only one other -- Amelie Mauresmo, who won her first title at age 20, four years quicker than Kerber -- wasn't a first-title title-winner while still a teenager.
Pliskova's current age? 24. And she's already won SIX titles.
So, just like that, the Czech has sort of gone from "underachiever" to "overachiever."
LIKE ON DAY 13: Top that, Martina. Heehee.
Sania Mirza is, without hyperbole, one of the most popular athletes on Earth. https://t.co/SbWXikly1e— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) September 10, 2016
"MEANWHILE..." ON DAY 13: Meanwhile...
"MEANWHILE, ALSO..." ON DAY 13:
Nunca un banco habia sido tan comodo! A bench had never been so comfortable! ?????? ?? pic.twitter.com/Y1DtzEoayG— Garbiñe Muguruza (@GarbiMuguruza) September 10, 2016
"THAT, OH, I LIKE THAT... well, wait..." MOMENT ON DAY 13:
I guess one idea is enough.
LIKE ON DAY 13: When everything comes up Angie...
...and, finally... I no longer cover the men's finals at the slams, but the girls singles and women's doubles champions will be decided on Sunday. Oh, and I'll be debuting the very first slam-ending "Temperature Chart" tomorrow, as well.
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#2 Angelique Kerber/GER def. #10 Karolina Pliskova/CZE 6-3/4-6/6-4
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Garcia/Mladenovic (FRA/FRA) vs. #12 Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE)
*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
Siegemund/Pavic (GER/CRO) def. #7 Vandeweghe/Ram (USA/USA) 6-4/6-4
*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#13 Viktoria Kuzmova/SVK vs. #5 Kayla Day/USA
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
(WC) Hart/Shibahara (USA/USA) def. Day/Dolehide (USA/USA) 4-6/6-2 [13-11]
*COLLEGIATE INVITATIONAL WOMEN'S FINAL*
#2 Danielle Collins (Virginia) def. Ronit Yurovsky (Michigan) 6-2/6-4
Kerber ? #fav— Daria Gavrilova (@Daria_gav) September 10, 2016
**RECENT U.S. OPEN WOMEN'S FINALS**
2006 Maria Sharapova d. Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-4,6-4
2007 Justine Henin d. Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1,6-3
2008 Serena Williams d. Jelena Jankovic 6-4,7-5
2009 Kim Clijsters d. Caroline Wozniacki 7-5,6-3
2010 Kim Clijsters d. Vera Zvonareva 6-2,6-1
2011 Samantha Stosur d. Serena Williams 6-2,6-3
2012 Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 6-2,2-6,7-5
2013 Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 7-5,6-7,6-1
2014 Serena Williams d. Caroline Wozniacki 6-3,6-3
2015 Flavia Pennetta d. Roberta Vinci 7-6,6-2
2016 Angelique Kerber d. Karolina Pliskova 6-3,4-6,6-4
*CAREER SLAM SINGLES TITLES - ACTIVE*
22...Serena Williams, USA
7...Venus Williams, USA
5...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...ANGELIQUE KERBER, GER
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2...Petra Kvitova, CZE
NOTE: Hingis (5)
*CAREER SLAM FINALS - ACTIVE*
28...Serena Williams (22-6)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
10..Maria Sharapova (5-5)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
3...ANGELIQUE KERBER (2-1)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
NOTE: Hingis (5-7)
*DEFEATED VENUS & SERENA IN SAME EVENT - DIDN'T WIN TITLE*
1999 Steffi Graf (Sydney)
2001 Martina Hingis (Australian Open)
2010 Jelena Jankovic (Rome)
2016 Karolina Pliskova (U.S. Open)
**AMERICAN COLLEGIATE INVITATIONAL WINNERS**
2014 Jamie Loeb, North Carolina (Soph.)
2015 Robin Anderson, UCLA (Sr.)
2016 Danielle Collins, Virginia (Sr.)
**RECENT U.S. OPEN GIRLS DOUBLES CHAMPIONS**
2007 Ksenia Milevskaya / Urszula Radwanska, BLR/POL
2008 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn / Sandra Roma, THA/SWE
2009 Valeria Solovyeva / Maryna Zanevska, RUS/UKR
2010 Timea Babos / Sloane Stephens, HUN/USA
2011 Irina Khromacheva / Demi Schuurs, RUS/NED
2012 Gabby Andrews / Taylor Townsend, USA/USA
2013 Barbora Krejcikova / Katerina Siniakova, CZE/CZE
2014 Ipek Soylu / Jil Belen Teichmann, TUR/SUI
2015 Viktoria Kuzmova / Aleksandra Pospelova, SVK/RUS
2016 Jada Myii Hart / Ena Shibahara, USA/USA
AO: Anna Kalinskaya & Tereza Mihalikova (RUS/SVK)
RG: Paula Arias Manjon & Olga Danilovic (ESP/SRB)
WI: Usue Arconada & Claire Liu (USA/USA)
US: Jada Myii Hart & Ena Shibahara (USA/USA)
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #10 Karolina Plsikova/CZE
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): #2 Angelique Kerber/GER
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2: Eri Hozumi/JPN d. (WC) Amanda Anisimova/USA 6-1/2-6/7-6(1) [Hozumi trails 4-0 in the 3rd, saves a MP vs. the 14-year old]
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR d. Zheng Saisai/CHN (5-7/7-6(5)/7-5; Zheng served up 5-4 2nd and 5-3 in TB; 3:01)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. #10 Karolina Pliskova/CZE d. #6 Venus Williams/USA 4-6/6-4/7-6(3) [saved MP, on 5th MP]
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: QF - #1 Serena Williams/USA d. #5 Simona Halep 6-2/4-6/6-3
FIRST VICTORY: Cagla Buyukakcay/TUR (def. Falconi/USA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #30 Misaki Doi/JPN (lost 1st Rd. to Witthoeft/GER)
UPSET QUEENS: China
REVELATION LADIES: Ukraine
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Belgium (0-4 in 1st Rd.)
CRASH & BURN: #32 Monica Puig/PUR (Olympic Gold medalist; lost 1st rd. to Sai.Zheng/CHN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Karolina Pliskova/CZE (4th Rd. - down set and 3-1 vs. V.Williams, saved MP in 3rd set, wins on 5th MP; in first career slam SF)
IT ("Teen"): Ana Konjuh/CRO
Ms.OPPORTUNITY: Anastasija Sevastova/LAT
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: CiCi Bellis/USA (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Lauren Davis/USA, Kayla Day/USA, Vania King/USA (all 2nd Rd.)
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: Serena Williams/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
KIMIKO DATE-KRUMM VETERAN CUP (KDK CUP): Angelique Kerber/GER (at 28, oldest debut at singles #1)
DOUBLES STAR: Laura Siegemund/GER
BROADWAY-BOUND: Nominee: The Jr. Bannerettes, The Pastries (Garcia/Mladenovic), The Dynamic Duo (Mattek-Sands/Safarova), K.Day/USA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Madison Keys/USA (won latest-ending women's match - 1:48 a.m.)
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Nominee: K.Day/USA, V.Kuzmova/SVK
All for Day 13. More tomorrow.