Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova have arrived at the U.S. Open women’s final Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium, a familiar court but entirely unfamiliar territory.
For Kerber, she plays knowing that she will be the new No. 1 player in the world when the rankings come out on Monday, displacing Serena Williams after 186 straight weeks.
For Pliskova, it is her first Grand Slam final, which comes after her first Slam semifinal (in which she ousted Serena Williams), after her first Slam quarterfinal and after her first Slam round of 16, in which she beat Venus Williams.
Kerber, 28, is the oldest female player to debut at No. 1 after a superb season in which she won her first Slam at the Australian Open, lost to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final and reached her third Slam final here with a victory over Caroline Wozniacki.
Pliskova, 24, is showing the promise of her teen years, when she won the Australian juniors. She has two tournament wins this year, including denying Kerber the No. 1 ranking by beating her in the Cincinnati final.
For both players, there has been ongoing honing of technique and conditioning typical of the modern game. Yet the greatest progress might not be between the lines but between the ears. Each player says the maturing process is a key element to her elevated success.
“If you believe in yourself, you can beat anyone,” Pliskova said. “Especially in girls tennis, it’s not only about a game and tennis, but it’s more about the mental things sometimes.”
Kerber believes that keeping her focus, keeping a positive attitude and letting her body language speak of the energy within have helped immensely in her rise to the top. She knows that in the past, her body language often said: “@&*$@#&@#”
“I was trying to change this and I think I improve very well,” Kerber said. “I was trying to be more positive than I was the last few years, because I know that the body language is really important.”
Pliskova’s body language is monotone. The 6-1 Czech has a regal bearing on the court, shows little emotion other than an abbreviated fist pump and goes about her business. She said her racket-smashing days are over, though she might bust one in practice. Her two tournament victories this season and her six straight wins in Flushing Meadows tell her that she has arrived not only at the Open women’s final but in the upper echelon of the game.
That win over Venus Williams in the round of 16 (she was the only top-20 player never to have reached that round in a Grand Slam) was a mental steppingstone. In the third set, she fought off a match point, then broke Wiliams’ serve on the way to forcing the tiebreak that she won.
Beating Serena and Venus in front of their hometown crowd at Ashe Stadium was huge.
“It’s not probably the best that I beat both of them in their country, but for me it’s really something special,” Pliskova said. “The match with Venus helped me, not only with the game but also with the crowd.”And because she’s beaten Kerber — and recently — she’s prepared for that, too.
“So I really believe now that I can beat good players, Pliskova said. “All of the players, actually, now.”