Angelique Kerber is the 2016 US Open champion, the heir apparent to the top spot in the rankings and, without any doubt, the best player in the world.
Say what you want about Serena Williams’ dominance, longevity and sure-fire Hall-of-Fame credentials, but the ranking formula essentially adheres to a case of "what have you done for me lately?" It's based on 12 months of math – at its heart, a game of addition and subtraction – and void of any subjectivity. Through that lens, the woman occupying the highest perch of all is not in question.
The current ranking system uses a rolling 52-week schedule which takes a player’s results from that year and that year only. It doesn’t care about a player’s reputation, how well they played 18 months ago or what they won a decade ago.
And as well as Serena plays when she plays, she simply hasn’t been on the court enough to overturn a truly great season from a remarkably bright talent.
Kerber has played 22 tournaments over the past 12 months, compared with Serena’s 14. Only two players inside the Top 100 have played fewer tournaments than the American over that time frame. One is Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t played since being suspended after the Australian Open in January. The other is currently pregnant Victoria Azarenka, whose last tournament was the French Open in May and who won’t be in action until 2017.
Kerber reached the final of the first tournament of 2016 in Brisbane and followed that up with her first-ever Grand Slam title two weeks later in Melbourne. That win came somewhat out of the blue considering she hadn’t been past the third round in any of the previous five majors and had reached the semifinals of a Slam just twice before – back in 2011 (US Open) and 2012 (Wimbledon).
But that win Down Under ignited something in the German, who went on to reach the Wimbledon final before her remarkable run in the Big Apple.
Over the past 52 weeks, Kerber has gone 66-20, including 48-14 on hard courts, 10-4 on clay and 8-2 on grass. She’s gone 12-3 in quarterfinals, 8-4 in semis and 3-5 in finals. She’s won twice as many matches as she’s lost against Top 20 players, including a winning record (9-8) over women inside the Top 10. Even Serena is only 1-1 against her this year, winning in the final on the grass of the All-England Club but losing at the same stage at the Australian Open.
Kerber entered the US Open saying she would like to be No. 1 one day, and she backed up her words with the kind of demeanor of a player who wouldn’t be defined by the number next to her name.
After all, plenty of great players, men and women, never reached that top spot. Elena Dementieva made nine Slam semis and two finals, and reached No. 3; Pam Shriver got to the final four of seven majors and the final of Wimbledon but never got higher than No. 3; and Mary Joe Fernandez contested three finals and three other semis but only reached No. 4.
And yet, despite all of the questions coming into New York about squandering an opportunity to surpass Serena in Cincinnati two weeks before the Open, her self belief, and her game, never wavered.
Kerber was guaranteed of the No. 1 ranking before the first ball of the final was struck, but she was still in uncharted territory. Never before had she contested a Slam final as the favorite, but those nerves were kept in check on the points that mattered most.
Kerber is the new US Open champion and a deserving world No. 1. She’s also the best player in the world right now – and that’s based purely on merit.