Courtney Nguyen, Point: How did we get to here? That’s the question many have been asking in the press room here at the US Open, where Angelique Kerber is set to play her third Slam final of the season just two days before she will officially take over as the No.1 player in the world.
It all began suddenly, in January, when she played what many considered the best match of her career to stun Serena Williams and win her first Slam title at the Australian Open. But as is the case for Kerber, her build towards No.1 and Saturday’s final has been far quieter, more workmanlike and unassuming in its reliability.
Reliable. That’s what Kerber has become. In a year that has seen a swirl of inconsistency hit the women surrounding her in the rankings, Kerber has pulled her visor down. She has embraced her ambition. She’s taken control of her game and her career. And the payoff has been immediate.
“That was my goal as well, was really going for it, taking control of my career and my game,” Kerber told WTA Insider on Saturday. “Not just waiting for the shots, if somebody is missing or not, just taking things in my hands and going for it.”
On Saturday, Kerber will be seeking “revanche,” as she says, to turn the tables on a bad loss to Karolina Pliksova just three weeks ago in the final of the Western & Southern Open. It was a bad beat, as a sluggish Kerber had no answers for Pliskova’s power game, and the Czech controlled the match from start to finish to cruise to a 6-3, 6-1 win.
“I think this is a completely new match, a completely new situation. I was a little bit tired in Cincinnati after the Rio trip and everything that happened there. I’m really looking forward to play Karolina again and take the challenge.”
A new match it is. In Cincinnati, Kerber was playing to take the No.1 ranking away from Serena and she was coming off an emotionally and physically exhausting silver medal effort at the Olympic tennis event. This time Kerber has the No.1 ranking already secured, and she comes into the final having not lost a set all tournament.
Kerber and Pliskova spent less than 90 minutes on court in their semifinal but Pliskova’s effort against Serena took a far greater toll. She told WTA Insider that she struggled to get to bed on Friday night, still reeling over her big win, and she admitted that beating Serena meant more to her than making the US Open final.
It makes you wonder whether she can come down from that high to play her best tennis for one more match. Because it will indeed take her best tennis to beat the toughest out in women’s tennis.
“I’m feeling very good because I have a lot of confidence from my last tournaments. I reached finals [at the Olympics and Cincinnati] and semifinals in Montréal. To be here in my next final is great. That’s why I’m really trying to take the energy of the last weeks on court tomorrow and playing with a lot of emotions and going out there to win the match.”
Playing a Slam final has become, in very quick pace, standard fare for Kerber this year. She’s familiar with the rhythms and routines leading up to a major final and the nerves that are natural for the occasion. This will be a brand new experience for Pliskova, who had never even made it past the third round of a Slam before this tournament.
The big key for Kerber will be her serve. You expect Pliskova, the WTA ace leader, to hold with far more ease. Kerber will need to match her to put pressure on her service games. Against Serena, Pliskova gave up just one break point all match. If Pliskova can handle the nerves and bring her best, Kerber’s serve will be under constant pressure.
But once the rallies begin the edge goes to Kerber. She has moved wonderfully throughout the tournament, her Rio hangover clearly a thing of the past. She will look to pick her spots to be aggressive, using that lefty forehand down the line to expose Pliskova’s forehand corner and open up the court.
That decision-making in particular, her ability to step in and take control of rallies on her terms, has been the biggest tactical change in Kerber’s game over the last 12 months. She used to be a reliable wall on the baseline that could be hit through with patience. Now she’s more of an offensive threat.
“That was my goal during my pre-season, working through the aggressive play,” Kerber said. “I know that I can do this, I’m practicing it a lot. Just going and transferring it onto the match court, that was the challenge for me. But I think right now I get used to it, playing really aggressive but also being really good in the defensive and just try to move good and making the mix. I think this is what makes me now stronger than ever.”
Both in her game and her mindset, Kerber has, at 28 years old, finally taken control of her own destiny. If things get tight on Saturday, she’ll take her chances. And when it comes to making good on those chances, no player in 2016 has been more bankable Angelique Kerber.
David Kane, Counterpoint: Success at the Slams starts at the smaller tournaments; the momentum built there is essential for growing both confidence and experience. Karolina Pliskova has spent the last two years cutting her teeth in the shadows of the big stages, reaching five International finals in 2014, then five Premier finals in 2015 – including the Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
But that next step remained elusive; 14 of her first 17 Grand Slam main draw campaigns ended in the first or second round, and all before the second week. For one who reached so many finals, Pliskova’s inability to channel that momentum into major victories was puzzling at best, worrying at worst. This was a woman whose consistency helped her capture the Emirates Airline US Open Series last summer, a player more than capable of making things happen on hardcourts.
All it took was a hot streak for the icy Pliskova to catch fire.
“I wasn’t feeling bad at other Grand Slams, any of them,” she said after breaking into the second week for the first time on Saturday. “But just somehow the game on the court wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. I was just a little bit tight, I wasn’t playing my tennis, wasn’t aggressive enough. If I’m not playing my game, I cannot beat those players like this. I cannot be the one who is running.”
It’s been quite a run all the same for the precise Czech powerhouse, who got on a roll after winning the Western & Southern Open, knocking out the year’s first two Grand Slam champions in Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza en route, and keeping the former from hitting No.1 in the final.
“I took a lot from that week,” she said of her Cincinnati title, the biggest thus far in her career. “I’m really happy that I took it here with me in New York, and it’s paying off even here. I’m still continuing to do the same things as I did before. I was struggling a little bit with my game on the Grand Slams. I knew I can play big tennis and good matches, but I couldn’t put it in the Grand Slams. I felt little bit pressure on myself.
“So I’m happy that right now it’s all paid off and I finally found my game.”
This pressure-free Pliskova has been unbeatable through 11 matches, even as she found herself down match point to No.6 seed Venus Williams.
“Once I beat Venus here I knew I’m playing good tennis and I have a chance to beat anyone in the tournament. I was ready for anything.”
She was indeed ready for an even bigger moment on Thursday night, taking on World No.1 Serena Williams, Venus’ sister, for a spot in her first Grand Slam final.
“She’s World No.1, so it’s always tough to beat someone like this. She’s never giving up. Even if she’s losing, not playing her best, it’s always tough to beat girls like this.
“I was pretty calm today. Before the match I felt a little bit like pressure, nervous. But when I step on the court I didn’t feel anything. I just, you know, wanted to win, actually. Not just enjoy, but to win.”
It’s that attitude Pliskova will take into Saturday’s final against Kerber, not one of a young woman happy to have already earned a career-best result, but one of an athlete with the experience and confidence from three weeks of well-earned momentum, who knows she can climb higher.
“We played a lot of times. I lost to her; I won. So I will be ready for anything. That’s a final of a Grand Slam, so anything is possible. Of course, there will probably nerves from both sides. We both have a good chance to win.
“But I will just do anything to win the title here.”
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.