NEW YORK — Having earned the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis, Angelique Kerber backed up her new billing as the best player in the world with her second career Grand Slam title, and her first U.S. Open trophy.
Saturday Kerber held off a hard-hitting first-time major finalist in Karolina Pliskova, the 24-year-old who had beaten both Venus and Serena Williams en route to the championship match.
Kerber won the back-and-forth affair 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, fighting from a break down in the third set and outlasting Pliskova in the two-hour, seven-minute match.
It’s a 10th career title for the 28-year-old, who broke through at the top level earlier this year with her shocking triumph at the Australian Open over Serena in the final.
Kerber becomes the first German player to win the U.S. Open since her childhood idol Steffi Graf did so 20 years ago, in 1996.
“It’s the best year in my career,” a tearful Kerber said on court. “It’s just incredible. Everything started here in 2011 and now I’m … standing here with the trophy. It means so much to me.”
Kerber, then ranked No. 91 in the world, had had a breakthrough event at the U.S. Open in 2011, when she lost to eventual champion Sam Stosur in the semifinals. She has been in the top 10 since 2012.
She said she had to steady herself when down in the third against Pliskova, who had an early break lead.
“I was trying to stay in the moment, trying to play my game,” Kerber said. “I was trying to enjoy the final. It means a lot to me to be No. 1. When I was a kid, I wanted to be No. 1 in the world and win Grand Slams. All the dreams came true this year. I’m trying to enjoy all the moments, on court and off court.”
Kerber collects $3.5 million for the win and moves to 54-14 on the 2016 season, a year that has been better for her than anyone else on tour as she ascends to No. 1 at 28, the oldest player to ever do so for the first time.
Saturday she weathered the storm that has been Pliskova this U.S. Open – and the last several weeks – one of the game’s biggest servers having advanced to the second week of a major for the first time in her Grand Slam career in her 19th major appearance.
"It was a great match tonight," Pliskova said on court. "I knew it was going to be difficult. I found some power in myself in the second set. Even though I couldn’t get the win, I’m proud of the way I’ve played the last few weeks. Hopefully, many more finals to come."
Kerber's win broke a 11-match win streak for Pliskova dating back to her Cincinnati opener nearly a month ago.
Pliskova denied Kerber the No. 1 ranking in Cincinnati, winning the title match over her in convincing fashion, 6-3, 6-1. Kerber, having won the silver medal at the Rio Olympics the week before, appeared out of gas.
Pliskova was the first player to beat both Williams sisters at a major since the 2009 U.S. Open when Kim Clijsters did so, but could not emulate the Belgian’s success of winning the tournament outright.
She earns $1.75 million for the runner-up effort, and becomes the first player since Amelie Mauresmo to make a Grand Slam final having not previously advanced past the third round. Mauresmo did as much at the Australian Open in 1999, losing to Martina Hingis.
Pliskova drops to 39-16 on the year as she searched for her seventh – and biggest – career title.
She started the match nervously, double faulting on the first point and watching her serve get broken by the lefty Kerber five points later. Kerber then pounced, opening up leads of 3-1 and 5-3 when Pliskova was forced to stay in the set.
She couldn’t, double faulting again for a 30-40 deficit. Kerber capitalized on her first set point, hitting her patented down-the-line left-handed forehand for a winner and closing the first set 6-3 in 40 minutes.
She would serve it out three games later, acing Kerber to earn a set point and then capitalizing on a Kerber forehand wide, the match heading to a deciding set.
Kerber would fall down an early break in the third set, her body language going south as her tennis game went off. But she held at love for 2-3, then broke Pliskova for 3-all and held from love-30 down for a 4-3 lead, including a roaring down-the-line forehand winner, perhaps the shot of the match.
Kerber would win going away from there, holding at love with a sensational service game and then breaking off of four points in a row, Pliskova wilting as the match neared its finish line. Pliskova hit her 47th unforced error of the match to assure Kerber the trophy.
After falling to her back as Pliskova’s final shot sailed wide, Kerber ran to her player box for hugs with coach Torben Beltz and her team, then was escorted through the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd back onto the court, where the emotion hit her, tears falling freely.
Kerber held the big-serving Pliskova to just five aces, winning four out of five break points and committing just 17 unforced errors to the Czech player’s 47. While an aggressive Pliskova went 28 for 38 at the net, it was Kerber’s stamina at the end of the match — and her ability to hit deep on the run — that assured her the win. She ended with 21 winners to Pliskova’s 40.
A Kerber-Williams final would have been a battle for the No. 1 ranking, the spot that Williams had held since February of 2013, 186 weeks in a row. That streak is snapped by Kerber come Monday, however, as Williams remains tied in the Open era record books with the great Graf at 22 majors and 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1.
Pliskova’s win over Serena was no doubt the moment of the women’s event, though Kerber’s unbridled steadiness has vaulted her safely to No. 1. She reached three Slam finals in 2016 having not reached the second week of any major during 2015, winning in Australia, losing the Wimbledon final (both against Serena) and then winning inside Arthur Ashe Stadium again Saturday.
She is the first left-hander to win the U.S. Open since Monica Seles in 1992, and joins Seles and Martina Navratilova as the only left-handers to be ranked No. 1 in the world.