Angelique Kerber became the first German woman to win the United States Open since Steffi Graf in 1996.
The line can be so fine, even with all the work Angelique Kerber has done on herself and her game.
And as she hoisted her second Grand Slam singles trophy of the year (and of her career) on Saturday at the United States Open, it seemed appropriate to wind back the tape eight months to the Australian Open.
In the first round there, she faced a match point in the second-set tiebreaker against the unseeded Misaki Doi of Japan and escaped only when Doi’s shot hit the tape and fell back on Doi’s side of the net.
“What would happen had she not won that match point?” Mary Joe Fernandez, the United States Fed Cup captain, asked on Saturday, shortly before Kerber went out and played her latest remarkable match under major pressure to defeat the 10th-seeded Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in the Open final.
Lose to Doi in January, and Kerber would not have gone on to win her first major title at the Australian Open, where she beat Serena Williams in a three-set thriller. Lose to Doi in January, and Kerber might never have found the state of mind necessary to experience this remarkable midcareer renaissance at 28.
Such tiny margins can have such big consequences. But the results were there for all to see down the stretch on Saturday in Arthur Ashe Stadium as Kerber, the No. 2 seed, won a very fine match in style, rallying from a break of serve down in the third set to defeat an opponent who had overpowered her, 6-3, 6-1, in the Cincinnati final just last month.
“You saw it in the match,” Kerber’s coach, Torben Beltz, said of the changes in his pupil. “If she’s a break down, she never gives up. I think she never gives up. She’s the fighter she was before, but right now she believes more in herself. You really see that she doesn’t want to lose and wants to go for her shots. She has more self-confidence, and that’s very important for her.”
Already guaranteed to become No. 1 in the world this week for the first time, Kerber will ascend to the top spot as a first-time United States Open champion as well. After she had finished off her victory, reached up to embrace the 6-foot-1 Pliskova and then climbed up to hug Beltz and others in the players’ box, she descended to her courtside chair, put a towel to her face and sobbed at length.
“It was everything, I think, because of all the pressure in the last few months,” Kerber said. “To win here is very special for me. Everything starts for me here in 2011. This Grand Slam is really, really special.”
In 2011, Kerber arrived in New York with a world ranking of 92 and made a most unexpected run to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion, Sam Stosur, in three sets. Though she had considerable success in the seasons that followed, breaking into the top 10, she never managed until this year to break through to that same stage of a Grand Slam tournament.
Now she has won two major titles and reached this year’s Wimbledon final, where she lost to Williams, and she also secured a silver medal in singles at the Summer Olympics last month.
It all adds up to a phenomenal and unexpected season and further proof that it is possible to make a breakthrough at an advanced tennis age. The most recent previous example: Flavia Pennetta, who won her first major singles title at the United States Open last year at 33.
Pennetta, an effervescent Italian, has since retired, but Kerber has every intention of continuing to ride her wave.
Always a great defender and counterpuncher with a capacity to hit the crowd-pleasing shot, Kerber has made her big move by getting fitter and even quicker, by attacking with more frequency and by making subtle improvements to her still vulnerable serve.
She won 51 percent of her second-serve points at the Open and 53 percent against Pliskova despite Pliskova’s best efforts to attack on her returns.
Kerber will be the oldest player in the history of the WTA rankings to become No. 1 for the first time. She is the first German woman to win the United States Open since Steffi Graf, Kerber’s childhood idol and occasional mentor, in 1996.
Graf sent her a good-luck text before the match, which at 2 hours 7 minutes turned out to be as grueling as it was entertaining. It was hot (close to 90 degrees) and muggy (63 percent humidity), but Kerber and Pliskova, both first-time Open finalists, kept hustling and taking chances right through the tape.
In the end, Kerber won it with great defense, tracking down Pliskova’s big power in the corners. She won it by being steadier (she made 17 unforced errors to Pliskova’s 47). She won it with clever, sliced left-handed serves at the right moments. But above all, she won it by going for it.
“She’s grown as a player,” Fernandez said. “She’s improved. She doesn’t just play defense anymore. She plays aggressively. I think her forehand down the line is one of the best in the game. She threads the needle beautifully.”
She proved quite the seamstress again at 3-3, 30-all in the final set with Pliskova still pressing her. Pliskova hit a deep backhand crosscourt. It was not an obvious opportunity, but Kerber chose to seize it anyway. She went airborne and nailed a forehand down the line.
It landed in the corner for a winner, and Kerber, eyes wide, pumped both fists and went back to the increasingly familiar business of winning Grand Slam titles — of staying on the right side of that very fine line between contender and champion.