NEW YORK—Angelique Kerber was doing what she had sworn to herself she wouldn’t do. She was pushing the ball.
The German was tied at 3-3 in the third set of the U.S. Open women’s final with Karolina Pliskova, and the tension in Arthur Ashe Stadium was as high as the humidity. It was a match that Kerber, as the WTA’s new No. 1 and the woman with a major title on her résumé, was supposed to win. Instead, she had watched as the 11th-ranked Czech had come back, with big shots blazing, from a set down to take it to a third.
Kerber had started the match assertively and won the first set 6-3. Now that early momentum was long gone, and she had spent the early stages of the third set missing routine ground strokes, many of them into the net; these were errors she hadn’t made all tournament. Each time a ball caught the tape and fell back, Kerber shot a glance in the direction of her coach, Torben Beltz, and raised her arms in exasperation.
Were we about to see a repeat of the Olympic final from last month, when a heavily favored Kerber had allowed another unheralded young player, Monica Puig, to outplay her in a third set for the gold medal? Or were we about to see a repeat of her loss to Pliskova in the Cincinnati final, also last month, when Kerber had first tried and failed to become the world’s No. 1 player?
Was Kerber, who has worked hard to curb her pessimism on court, about to go negative again? Was this defensive-minded 28-year-old, who vowed at the start of 2016 to become more aggressive, about to go back into her shell? To lose three straight important finals to players she was favored to beat would have been an inauspicious start to her reign.
But Kerber had learned from those defeats. Unlike in Rio and Cincy, she managed to stay close to Pliskova despite her shaky form, erasing a 1-3 deficit to get back to 3-3. But when another backhand found the net to make it 0-30 on her serve, Kerber appeared to be in danger of lagging behind again. It had been at the same stage in the second set that Kerber first began to look anxiously at her player box. Soon after, she had been broken, and a match that looked sure to be hers had turned against her.
In the third set, though, the 24-year-old Pliskova, who was new to this stage, couldn’t quite step through the door that Kerber opened. She threw the German a lifeline by hitting two backhands long. Here was Kerber’s chance to make good on her vow to be aggressive, to play with purpose, to “not just hit balls over the net.”
This time Kerber did more. Rather than play it safe, she let fly with a risky down-the-line forehand. This is her best shot, and her point-opening weapon, but as the ball left her racquet it looked like it was heading wide. At the last second, it curled in and found the corner for a winner. Kerber, who had been slump-shouldered for the better part of an hour, rose up on one leg and aimed a fist pump toward her player box.
“When I was going down the line,” Kerber said, “I knew, ‘OK, now I have to risk a little bit, because this is the only chance I can get.’ I took it, so I think this was really the shot of the match from my side. When I won the point, I knew, ‘OK, I have the feeling. Now just go for it.’”
Three games later, Kerber had won, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
But if Kerber pushed herself to do more in this match, she can thank Pliskova for motivating her. The Czech was the revelation of the tournament. Her strokes sounded like cannon shots ringing out in Ashe, and they made the New York fans, many of whom were unfamiliar with her game, gasp at times. Pliskova finished with 40 winners, but in the final game she couldn’t find the court.
There was a sense that, after coming so far in the last month—Pliskova beat Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza and Venus and Serena Williams—she couldn’t quite convince herself she could make the final leap. For someone who had never reached the second week of a major, to suddenly win one may have been too much for her to imagine or believe. But there’s no question that Pliskova can put herself in this position again. She has a lot of room to improve, especially in the footwork department. Already, though, virtually every match she plays is on her racquet.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Pliskova said. “Not even during the match. Not even in the beginning. In the end, in the third set, I was very close. But, you know, she’s just playing some good tennis this year. It’s never easy to beat her.”
It’s amazing how quickly a reputation as a Grand Slam champion and a No. 1 player starts to help you, isn’t it?
And it’s amazing how much experience helps, too. Kerber said she thought back to her win over Serena in Melbourne in the third set on Saturday.
“I just told myself, ‘OK, be positive,’” she said. “Believe in your game. I was thinking a little bit [about] the final in Australia, where I was also in the third set. I believed then in my game, and I did today as well.”
Kerber began this year’s Australian Open by saving a match point in the first round against Misaki Doi. Eight months later, she’s a two-time Grand Slam champion, an Olympic silver medalist and the WTA’s top-ranked player.
Officially, on paper, the top player is the one who accumulates the most ranking points. But in the eyes of fans, opponents and the world, the top player is the one who can, when the chips are down in the third set of a Grand Slam final, step in and thread the needle with a perfectly struck forehand. On Saturday that was Angelique Kerber, and that’s why she’s No. 1.