OK, maybe we can all stop fretting about the future of women’s tennis in the post-Serena Williams world.
That has to be the biggest take-away from Angelique Kerber’s grueling and gutty win Saturday over Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in the finals of the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Fans might have entered the stadium lamenting the absence of Williams, who was knocked out of both the tournament and the WTA’s No. 1 ranking on Thursday by Pliskova. They quickly moved on, however, after being treated to a rare three-set final — only the third since 1999 — that ended dramatically when Kerber broke the serve of the hardest-serving player in the game.
The German’s win was her second Grand Slam victory this year and came just two days after she ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the world, ending Williams 186-week rule atop of the WTA standings.
“It means a lot to me,” a teary-eyed Kerber said moments after her win. “I always dreamed of winning a Grand Slam in New York. I’m the No. 1 player in the world. All my dreams came true this year.”
And the way they came true might say a lot about the evolution of women’s tennis.
Kerber, 28, is the oldest woman ever to debut at No. 1. And she wins this honor by a considerable margin, beating out Jennifer Capriati who first rose to No. 1 when she was 25 in 2001. Back in the olden days, teenagers like Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger and Chris Evert energetically burst onto the scene to run circles around their elders. Now, women’s tennis has become a lot more like the men’s, in that it takes years of work to develop both the mental and physical toughness to compete consistently at the highest level. In fact, Kerber did not win her first Grand Slam title until 15 years after she turned pro.
Heading into this season, Kerber had long been an established player in the top 10, but never had reached the finals of a Grand Slam tournament. Then began her incredible run. She began 2016 by defeating Williams in the Australian Open final in January, she reached the Wimbledon final in July, won an Olympic Silver medal in August and won her second major Saturday.
“I would definitely say she deserves being No. 1,” said Pliskova, who was playing in her first Grand Slam final. “She’s been playing great this year, and, you know, constant. She deserves to be No. 1 and after years when Serena was there, I think it’s a nice change.”
Pliskova said she put an incredible amount of effort this season into increasing her fitness level and working on her mental toughness. That clearly showed in the finals, which featured a compelling contrast in styles. The 6-1, tattooed Pliskova is a giant presence on the court. She leads the tour in aces this year and averaged 109 mph on her first serves in a semifinal win over Williams.
Kerber, who is 5-8 with a low center of gravity, is great at retrieving and counter punching. In the 90-degree heat at Arthur Ashe, Pliskova looked drained by late in the third set. Kerber took advantage of that by sweeping the final eight points of the match, holding serve at love and then breaking Pliskova’s serve at love.
It was her first match played under the pressure of being the No. 1 player in the world. And though she had to wait a long time to get to this point, she said it made it all the more sweeter.
Said Kerber: “I’m not 18. I was always trying to improve my game and be patient and work really hard. Now to see that work pays off is a really good feeling. You play for this moment.”