What to Watch at US Open: New No. 1 Kerber faces Pliskova
NEW YORK >> The last time the two women's finalists at this U.S. Open, Angelique Kerber of Germany and Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, played each other, it really was no contest.
Pliskova dominated the higher-ranked and more-experienced Kerber, not merely winning in straight sets, but dropping only four games along the way.
Like Saturday's matchup, the one three weeks ago was played on a hard court.
Like Saturday, there was a title at stake.
There are, however, some key differences, including that the earlier one was at a run-of-the-mill event and the upcoming one is at a Grand Slam tournament. And, perhaps most significantly of all when it comes to the outcome this time, when Kerber lost at Cincinnati in August, she knew she had to win to make her debut at No. 1 in the WTA rankings — whereas now, she's guaranteed of wresting the top spot from Serena Williams on Monday, regardless of what happens in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
So while there is still a lot on the line, of course — millions of dollars, a major trophy — Kerber does not have to deal with the pressure of trying to ascend to No. 1. She's already assured of that.
"That was always a dream for me," the No. 2-seeded Kerber said after beating Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals Thursday night, when 10th-seeded Pliskova upset Williams 6-2, 7-6 (5). "I was trying to not think too much the whole last few weeks about this, and now I reach it. So it's something really special for me."
All in all, it's been quite a special 2016 for Kerber.
This will be her third appearance in a Grand Slam title match: She beat Williams in the Australian Open final in January, then lost to the American in the Wimbledon final in July.
Kerber has a tour-leading 53 match wins, two titles and now three runs to major finals this season, which accounts for her move up.
"She gets a lot of balls back. She also knows how to change the pace. She gets good angles. And, yeah, she's playing really well," said Wozniacki, who spent 67 weeks atop the WTA, finishing 2010 and 2011 at No. 1.
"You know, it's not a lot of people who have been No. 1. It's a huge thing. She definitely has a target on her back now. Everyone wants to beat the No. 1 player in the world. She's going to enjoy it. First, she has a match here that she's focused on."
That comes against Pliskova, who never had been past the third round in 17 previous major appearances but became only the fourth woman to beat both Williams sisters during one Grand Slam tournament.
"I hope I didn't stop yet, that there is still one more step to go. I'll do anything for getting the title," Pliskova said. "Even if I don't get it, it's a big result. I'm really happy to be there and even have the chance to play in the final here."
The match offers an intriguing contrast in styles. As Venus and Serena Williams saw first-hand, the 6-foot-1 Pliskova goes right at opponents with big, flat groundstrokes and tough-to-handle serves. She averaged 109 mph on her first serves Thursday — faster than the younger Williams, known for the best serve in the women's game — and leads the tour in aces this year.
The 5-foot-8 Kerber, meanwhile, is terrific at retrieving and counter-punching, dropping down to a knee at times along the baseline to get balls back.
Her serve is a weakness: She was broken while serving for the match against Wozniacki, for example, and lost three service games in the first set alone of her quarterfinal against 2015 runner-up Roberta Vinci. Kerber acknowledged that aspect of her game will be key on Saturday.
She also said she wants to try to control points more than she did the last time she faced Pliskova.
"I was just pushing too much the balls there," Kerber said, "so I think I will change this a little bit. Go for it, being aggressive."