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2016 US Open Recap: Kerber, Wawrinka tough out titles

September 11, 2016 - 2016 US Open Men's Singles Champion Stan Wawrinka during the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

The US Open has earned its title as the toughest two weeks in tennis. From its concrete surface to the weather that alternates between summer and fall, to its unique, glorious grind, a Flushing fortnight is not for the faint of heart.  So it seemed only fitting that two of the game’s most tenacious competitors, Stan Wawrinka and Angelique Kerber, emerged as its champions.

While both were obvious contenders, neither was a favorite coming in. Kerber, though the No. 2 seed, played second fiddle to Serena Williams, who was coming off a Wimbledon title and was chasing her record 23rd Grand Slam title at this year’s Open. And Wawrinka, who came to New York having not beaten a Top 10 player all year, was at best the third choice behind heavy favorites Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

But Saturday night, there was the German hoisting the women’s trophy for the first time as the rising world No. 1. And on Sunday, the Swiss wore down Djokovic in a gutty display of heavy-metal tennis, blasting away at the best defense in the game until it cracked, then crumbled.

So the US Open has first-time men’s and women’s champions in the same year for the first time since 2011 – when Djokovic finally won his first men’s crown and Samantha Stosur stunned Serena for her lone Slam championship – and just the second since 2003 – when Andy Roddick and Justine Henin-Hardenne took home the hardware.

And Kerber and Wawrinka have burnished their legacies, rising in the Grand Slam record books with the second and third major titles, respectively, proving themselves as tough as the conditions – and emerging unscathed, as the 2016 US Open champions.

With that, here is a look back at the 2016 US Open, and a look ahead to 2017:

Player of the Tournament: Angelique Kerber

It’s hard to imagine having a better two weeks than Angelique Kerber. In a fortnight’s time – really, in the course of three days – she assured herself of rising to No. 1 in the world for the first time, achieving a lifelong dream, then trumped that by completing a run to the US Open women’s singles title. In a final replete with more drama than a telenovela, Kerber bounced back from a break down in the final set to complete a title victory over Karolina Pliskova, collapsing to the court following match point following the Czech’s final errant forehand. When the German rose, her hands still covering her mouth in shock, she was indeed the champion – a two-time Grand Slam winner in 2016 alone, set to rise to the top of the women’s rankings when they are released on Monday.

It was a fitting end to a Grand Slam season that saw Kerber establish herself, truly, as the best player in the world: the Australian Open winner, the Wimbledon finalist, even an Olympic silver medalist. She dropped only one set en route to this year’s Open title, the second stanza in the final against Pliskova, and dismissed two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and former US Open finalists Caroline Wozniacki and Roberta Vinci along the way. On-court afterward, she said the full two weeks were a dream come true. It was also a deserving coda for a 28-year-old who discovered her best tennis on the sport’s grandest stage.

Match of the Tournament: Pliskova d. Venus

With all apologies to the women’s final, which trumped it for magnitude but not for excellence, no match over the course of this Flushing fortnight had the twists, turns and consistent top-level tennis of Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova. For three sets and two-and-a-half hours, the two lanky, 6-foot-plus big-hitters hammered big serves and laser-guided ground strokes, each trying to master the best possible version of very similar games. When it finally ended, and the buzzing crowd settling back into their seats, Pliskova had ensured there would be no all-Williams semifinal at the 2016 US Open. The No.10 seed, making her first appearance in a Grand Slam round of 16, outlasted the two-time champion in an instant classic, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.

The third set seesawed back and forth, with Pliskova racing out to 4-2, only to see Venus rebound to earn a match point at 5-4. But the Czech dug out, then broke, then pulled ahead to triple match point, serving up 6-5, 40-0. This time it was Venus who carried the day, smoking four consecutive winners to force the tiebreak. Venus, though, could not summon a second wave in the breaker. Pliskova may have been a novice at this stage of a major, but she is an accomplished performer – and she demonstrated her pedigree when it mattered most, finally closing out Venus on her fifth match point, 7-3, a potentially career-changing win for a rising star on the way to her first Grand Slam final.

Match/Upset of the Tournament: Pouille d. Nadal

Despite his run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Lucas Pouille was largely unknown coming into the Open, a promising young talent with a go-for-broke style. Two-time champion Rafael Nadal, meantime, was nearly perfect through three rounds, not surrendering a set and playing the vintage game that gave him the look of a title contender. But from the get-go, Pouille was on. The No. 24 seed burned through the first set before Nadal could get his teeth into the match, and from there the slugfest was on.

The two traded fearsome forehands over five sets and four hours, with Pouille bouncing back from a break down in the fifth and Nadal fending off three match points in the fifth-set tiebreak. At 6-6 in the decisive breaker, Nadal had an easy forehand put-away, the kind of shot he has struck thousands of times to win matches and tournaments all over the world. But this one found the net. Pouille had his opening, and he took advantage, closing out the first seismic upset of the Open one point later with a devastating forehand into Nadal’s backhand corner. And with that, the No. 4 seed was gone, and the Open had its newest breakout star.

Upset of the Tournament: Pliskova d. Serena

It was inconceivable that it could happen again, for a second year in a row, with history once more on the line. But there was No. 1 seed Serena Williams, walking haltingly and disbelievingly toward to the net, having double faulted on match point to end her run at a seventh US Open women’s singles title and 23rd Grand Slam crown. There, she shook hands with an equally stunned Karolina Pliskova, the No. 10 seed who played impeccable tennis in the biggest match of her life. The result was a shocker: the 24-year-old talent who had never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam prior to this fortnight dispatching the six-time champion to advance to her first Grand Slam singles final.

Impressively for someone new to this stage, Pliskova displayed few nerves on her march to the final – not against Serena, not in defeating Venus Williams in the fourth round, not in whipping Ana Konjuh in the quarterfinals. For Serena, who lost to unseeded Roberta Vinci in 2015 to end her pursuit of the calendar-year Grand Slam, it was second premature exit, a second disappointment on a court where she has achieved so much success.

Moment of the Tournament: Juan Martin del Potro

For 10 days, Juan Martin del Potro took over the 2016 US Open. The gentle giant from Argentina was back in New York for the first time in three years, robbed of much of his prime by a series of left wrist surgeries. From his very first match, the wild-card entry was wholly embraced by the New York faithful, who cheered for him and chanted his name with each booming serve and every supersonic forehand.

The adulation reached its peak in his last match. One game away from elimination at the hands of eventual champion Stan Wawrinka, the crowd, many decked in Argentina soccer jerseys, began chanting “del Potro, del Potro del Potro del Potro” to the tune of “Ole, ole ole ole” – the ubiquitous South American soccer cheer – drawing tears from the 2009 champion. It only made the fans love him more.

Quote of the Tournament: Gael Monfils

“I’m happy with my performance. I think it is never easy to play quarterfinal against a French guy. I think I handled it pretty good mentally and tennis-istically.” – verbal dexterist Gael Monfils, speaking to the press after his quarterfinal victory over countryman Lucas Pouille

Looking Ahead: 2017 US Open

The 2017 US Open holds few promises. A year’s time can undo a game, and injuries and inconsistency can rattle even the best of players. But certainly, there will be great storylines to be found. By this point next year, Serena Williams may already hold the record for most Grand Slam singles titles, but she will still be in pursuit of her record seventh in Flushing Meadows, breaking a tie with Chris Evert for the most in the Open era. And all eyes will also fall on Venus, who will be 37 next year and perhaps reaching the end of her Hall of Fame career.

Similarly, on the men’s side, fans will be eagerly anticipating the return of Roger Federer after a year’s absence and hoping to see a return trip from Juan Martin del Potro, the feel-good story of 2016. And of course we will keep an eye on Novak Djokovic and his run at a place in history, at Andy Murray and his attempt to add a second Open crown, and at the host of promising young talents – both men and women – poised to break through on the hard floors of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

And, of course, on Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka and whether they can repeat their 2016 triumphs.

No matter what, the US Open awaits, with history to be made and champions to be crowned. It’s the toughest two weeks in tennis – always ready to close another Grand Slam season in the highest of style.

2016 US Open Honor Roll

Men’s Singles: Stanislas Wawrinka, Switzerland
Women’s Singles: Angelique Kerber, Germany
Men’s Doubles: Jamie Murray, Great Britain, and Bruno Soares, Brazil
Women’s Doubles: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, U.S., and Lucie Safarova, Czech Republic
Mixed Doubles: Laura Siegemund, Germany, and Mate Pavic, Croatia
Boys’ Singles: Felix Auger-Aliassime, Canada
Girls’ Singles: Kayla Day, U.S.
Boys’ Doubles: Juan Carlos Manuel Aguilar, Bolivia, and Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, Brazil
Girls’ Doubles: Jada Hart and Ena Shibahara, U.S.
Collegiate Invitational Men: Thai-Son Kiwatkowski
Collegiate Invitational Women: Danielle Collins

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