An Italian writer – the one who’s always looking for a provocative angle – seemed desperate. He told Angelique Kerber that she was like Pete Sampras: “Pete would tell us that he was ‘just a tennis player, nothing more, nothing less.’ I need to write my story.Say something,” he pleaded, “tell us a story about your mother – something.”
But Kerber didn’t. She just smiled. She always does. At times the Beatles lyric comes to mind – “[She’s] a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say”
So what? Kerber lets her racket do the talking. And, like Pistol Pete, her racket shouts loud. Hitting flat, seeing the court brilliantly, creating angles, moving with roadrunner speed, the best defensive player in the game, she has become incredibly fit and has found an unshakable confidence, plus her serve (once described as a meatball) is less of a liability and she has a mental toughness you can almost taste.
Kerber may not be a household name. Her apparel company isn’t going to go out and claim she’s the best athlete of all time. We won’t be seeing her on HSN soon.
But she is an incredible professional, who has gotten better year by year. She’s improved so much mentally and physically and Thursday became the oldest player to reach No. 1 for the first time.
Plus, she is a unique tennis player. Okay, she’s German just like her idol Steffi Graf (who gave her a key pre-season pep talk in December). She’s a dicey lefty like Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, has much of the grit, fight and quick-twitch speed of Justine Henin as well as a Serena-like penchant for long, big stage bouts.
And today she faced quite a battle when she went up against the hottest player in the game, the considerable Karolina Pliskova, who was on a dandy 11-match winning streak.
Never mind that last year Pliskova had won just three games at the Open (against a qualifier no less), that she had never gotten beyond the third round of a Slam, that she was down match point to Venus Williams in the fourth round and, of course, that this was her first Slam final.
Who cares? The Czech not only comes from a Navratilova-inspired land of champions, she has been playing with an astounding composure. Her arm loose, her groundies deep, her rather elegant grace apparent, she led the WTA in aces by a mile and had been crushing top foes as if she was a whack-a-mole wiz.
At the Open, she became only the fourth player in history to beat Serena and Venus in a major. And in Cincinnati, en route to claiming the title, she downed French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, two-time Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetseva, and crushed the travel weary Kerber in the final 6-3, 6-1.
But in tennis, Slams are the story and in New York Kerber had swept through to the final without losing a set, while not surprisingly, Pliskova came out just a tad tight and tentative and in the first game blew an easy volley and got broken when, inexplicably, she broke a string. Throughout the first set Pliskova was unable to impose her serve and couldn’t punish Kerber’s second serve. When Kerber sprinted to mid-court to score a forehand pass, the German collected the first set 6-3.
The composed Pliskova is known for her laid back ways. Today she’d slept ‘until noon, so maybe losing the first set was a wake-up call, as she adeptly changed her ways in the second set. Quietly more intense, she cut down on her errors, served and returned with greater effect and, most of all, charged the net with a fearless zeal. She won 21 of her 26 net rushes, had 17 winners, and when a Kerber forehand flew wide, Pliskova captured the second set 6-4.
Now the Open would have just its fourth three-set final in 22 years. Now Pliskova had clearly gained the momentum. As Kerber’s level dropped, her errors mounted and her spirit sagged. Pliskova, her groundies finding the corners, won six of eight games and scored a critical break to go up 3-1. At times the Czech’s power almost brought Kerber to her knees. She was reeling. But Kerber’s game is built around her defense, her scamper-ability and her fighting spirit. “I will bend, but I will not break,” she seems to proclaim. “I will pressure you, you will have to hit that extra shot – your problem, not mine.”
Kerber then broke back to even the winner-take-all set 3-3.
The drama was clear. Chris Evert said, “Now it is all about nerves.” At 3-3, Kerber hit her money shot – a decisive forehand down-the-line to the corner – such a brilliant display of athletic courage. Now her (four huge finals in just eight months) experience, her confidence, conditioning and defense-to-offense savvy kicked in. The unblinking 28-year old, smelling victory, ramped up the pressure big-time, while her foe, the 24-year old hopeful, collapsed as she blew a volley, dumped a backhand wide and let a forehand fly. Angelique Kerber, the new No. 1 and Olympic silver medalist, broke in a flash to become the new US Open champion. Her 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory was a gritty work of beauty. Once unknown and deep within the WTA pack, the German had captured her second Slam of the year. Here was the new angel, or should we say the new queen, of woman’s tennis.
Writers never did get any good stories about her mother. (Our favorite is Jimmy Connors‘ mom building a court in her backyard for her boy.) Instead we relished her delight. Never before had we seen a champion speak so gleefully about dreams. In Australia she told Inside Tennis, “Do what you love. This is what I did and my dream came true.”
After her inspiring New York win she expanded on her point. “I was always dreaming to be one day No. 1 and to be in the Grand Slams,” she said. “I was always trying to improve…I knew that I had the game to beat the best players and [had to] be patient and work really hard.
And now to see that work pay off, this is actually the best feeling….you are just playing for this moment to be on center court in the final and with the amazing crowd. So this is what I was always dreaming for….You have to believe in your dreams. You have to go with a lot of patience…Have a great team around you and really love what you are doing. This is when you do everything and everything comes together one day…I will show a few videos [to] my children and…tell them [and]everybody — just believe in yourself and do what you really love.”
And that’s just what this dreamy star did on this inspiring New York day.