Sportswriter and broadcaster David Fearnhead, Women's Tennis Blog's friend and long-time contributor, shares his talking points from US Open 2016. He now presents the sports radio show The Only Game in Town every Thursday night on Ribble FM.
On the sports radio show I work on, this past Thursday night, my co-presenter asked me a question:
It’s surely just a walkover for Serena?
It was a set-up. He knew that’s what many would be thinking, but he also knew that I didn’t agree:
Karolina Pliskova is a real threat. With her height and long levers, she’s got a dangerous serve. Sure, she doesn't motor as well as say Simona Halep, but then who does. Pliskova could well derail Serena’s run at the 23.
I went on to tell the listeners:
Don’t forget it was this stage last year that Roberta Vinci caused a major upset. Serena may have equalled Steffi Graf’s 22, but 23 is still to be done, and when Serena plays history, she has a tendency to tighten up. Lightening could strike twice.
I also talked about Caroline Wozniacki's lack of tools to hurt Kerber:
Kerber won't have any such problems against Wozniacki.
Whilst it is great to see the Dane back at the business-end of a Grand Slam, she still struggles with the same weakness of a game without any big weapons. If she was hoping to wear Kerber down, then it was a strategy that was doomed to fail.
So who would play in the final?
Definitely Kerber. I have an inkling Serena will choke up again, but it's just an inkling. I'm not prepared to put any of my own money on it.
The key factor for me was Pliskova, she looked so calm and composed all tournament. She was playing without fear, she was looking as if this was her tournament and as if in a year of first time Grand Slam champions she would be adding her name to that list.
Pliskova’s title tilt had built silently without anyone, myself included, really taking notice of her until the fourth round, when she dispatched Venus Williams in three sets, even though she needed a tiebreak to do it. Her demolition of Ana Konjuh in under an hour signalled she was going to be a problem to Serena. She was obviously in the form of her career. Though, I’m sure few predicted that 6-2 opener or the hour-long set that followed, when Pliskova held her nerve to make her first Grand Slam final. That was the thing that most impressed me, how calm she appeared during it all. In the noisiest Grand Slam of them all, she played with freedom, unencumbered by nerves or self-doubt.
OUT OF THE BLUE
The signs had not been there in the other majors where Pliskova was looking much more of a doubles specialist with two semifinals in Australia and Wimbledon. This year in singles she’s failed to get past the second round at both the French and at Wimbledon. The big match mentality wasn’t known until it was shown. Now it’s there we’ll have to see if this was just one of those freak tournaments or if she’s a true contender who will be back for more.
A NEW ERA
Angelique Kerber is not just a contender. She’s a proven winner, two Grand Slams in a year, the new world number one. The confidence of already being a Grand Slam champion showed. Even when Pliskova fought back to take the second set, Kerber held her nerve. She didn’t panic. She steadied herself, regained her composure and came back at her.
Kerber is a player whose success has been built on hard work. She was born without great height, she’s built her strength in the gym, she’s built her game on the court and she’s built a solid mentality from years on the tour. Are we now in the new era of Kerber? Quite possibly, the only women I can think of who can really stop her in the majors, if you look past that surprise Monica Puig result in Rio, is Serena. Garbine Muguruza is the possible exception, but she has to prove she can get back to her French Open form and do it on other surfaces. Could women’s tennis finally get the true rivalry it’s been waiting for? Much of that will depend on how Serena comes back in 2017.
And I can't wrap things up without mentioning Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek Sands, who are back to Grand Slam doubles winning ways. The champions of both the Australian and the French Opens in 2015, have now added a third title. It's especially pleasing for Safarova, who'd been hospitalised with a bacterial infection in late 2015. The title in the US comes just a few weeks after she and Czech compatriot Barbora Strycova took bronze in Rio. Team Bucie now just need next year's Wimbledon crown to compete the Quartet.