A transformative tennis flashback: The first round of the first Slam in 2016 and Angelique Kerber was preparing to exit the Australian Open, saying later in interviews that she had one foot on the plane.
But Misaki Doi’s inability to convert a match point kept Kerber on the ground in Melbourne. The escape enabled her game to take unprecedented flight in 2016: The Australian Open title, a Wimbledon final and a silver medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the No. 1 ranking, at age 28.
Kerber bookended her Grand Slam breakout year in dramatic fashion on Saturday, winning the U.S. Open in three sets. The second-seeded Kerber fought back from a 3-1 deficit in the decisive set, beating No. 10 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in 2 hours 7 minutes.
“All the dreams came true this year,” Kerber said.
Kerber was at her counterpunching best and picked her spots to be aggressive against the powerful Pliskova, who wilted late in the third under hot, humid conditions. From 4-4 in the third set, Kerber won the final eight points of the match.
She was four for five on break-point opportunities, overall. Pliskova, meanwhile, converted just two of seven break-point chances. Kerber talked about one turning point in the third set, a devastating forehand winner, which she powered down the line at 30-30 in the seventh game of the third set.
“I think this shot was the key for the third set,” she said. “When I was going down the line, I knew I had to risk a little bit because this is the only chance I can get. When I won the point, I knew, ‘OK, I have the feeling.’”
In 2016, Kerber beat Serena Williams in the Australian Open final, lost to Williams in the Wimbledon final, took home the silver medal, losing to Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, at the Olympics and reached the No. 1 spot when Williams lost to Pliskova in the semifinals in New York. At 28, Kerber will become the oldest female player to make her debut at No. 1, and is the first German woman to gain the top spot since Steffi Graf. The new rankings are released on Monday.
Her level of improvement is unusual so late in a tennis career in the women’s game.
“I was always dreaming to being one day No. 1 and to be in the Grand Slams,” Kerber said. “I’m not 18 so I’m always trying to improve my game. I knew I have the game to beat the best players and just being patient and working really hard.”
Kerber was born five days before Graf won the Australian Open in 1988. Graf went on to complete the Grand Slam that year — all four majors — and an Olympic gold medal. Eventually, Kerber would watch plenty of Graf’s matches.
“I remember all the matches were really fast,” said Kerber. “I heard from her yesterday or like two days ago. She was wishing me luck for the final … She was always my idol and I told her so many times.”
For Pliskova, it was her first Grand Slam final. She had never gone past the third round in a major and beat Venus Williams and Serena Williams to reach the final, saving a match point against Venus Williams in the fourth round.
She beat Kerber in decisive fashion three weeks ago in the Cincinnati final. Pliskova changed tactics after losing the first set and made serious inroads by coming in to the net more often. In fact, she made 13 of 14 shots at the net in the second set.
“I was so happy to get the biggest title of my career,” Pliskova said of Cincinnati. “I was thinking, ‘OK, now I can even lose in the first or second round of the U.S. Open,’ but I was able to take the game from Cincinnati here, which is never easy after you win a tournament, to play the same game in other tournaments.”
Kerber slipped into negativity in the second set and stopped the slide by thinking about her Australian Open final against Serena Williams.
“My body language was not the best,” Kerber said. “I was trying to change it in the third set, but it was not so easy because Karolina is a tough opponent. She was one break up very soon in the third set.
“I told myself, ‘Stay positive. Believe still in your game.’ In Australia, where I was also in the third set, I believed in my game and I did it today, as well.”