Angelique Kerber, who will take over the No. 1 ranking from Serena Williams next week, has reached a milestone, but she needs this US Open title to cement her place at the top.
Her ranking is assured. That’s not a question.
But for Kerber, who at 28 became the oldest woman to debut at the top of the rankings, a win in Flushing Meadows – which would be her second major title of the year – would leave no doubt that she deserves to be considered the best in women’s tennis.
The German’s year has been good, certainly. But has it been extraordinary, truly world-beating?
Yes, Kerber won the Australian Open, beating Serena Williams in a pivotal third set in the final, after having extricated herself from a match point in the opening round. The feisty German has now made three out of four Slam finals. She has won two titles this year and made it to seven finals, while compiling the winningest record on the women’s tour, 53-14.
After reaching the landmark of the top ranking after her semifinal defeat of Caroline Wozniacki, Kerber said, “It's something really special for me, because, yeah, I was dreaming for this No. 1. I was always dreaming when I was really young."
After winning her first major in January, though, Kerber conceded that she lost the plot a bit and wilted under the pressure of increased expectations and attention. She tumbled out of the first round at Roland Garros, and from February to May, she lost her opening matches at Doha, Indian Wells and Rome in a succession of bad losses to much lower-ranked players.
“I was just trying to get used to this pressure, all the stuff what's happen after Australia,” admitted the German.
Kerber has since rebounded, earning the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, reaching the final of Cincinnati and now slicing through the US Open draw without dropping a set. Even before the semifinals, Kerber had also lost the fewest games and spent the least amount of time on court.
But that still leaves her with that single success in Melbourne when all the chips were on the table.
The women’s game has rather famously seen several players ascend to the top without necessarily having the stacked resume generally expected of the top-ranked player. Caroline Wozniacki, the Dane whom Kerber dispatched with relative ease in the semifinals here, held the top spot for 67 weeks but never won a major. Dinara Safina of Russia and the Serb Jelena Jankovic also had brief stints at the top without ever claiming a major title.
Others fall into the category of one-Slam wonders, having claimed a single Slam title and then withered, never returning to really contend for another Slam. Those players include Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, who won only the 2008 French Open and was briefly No. 1 for just two weeks; Samantha Stosur, who beat Serena Williams in her one streak to a major, at the US Open in 2011, but has only reached a quarter and two semis since in the majors, combined with a slew of early-round losses; Francesca Schiavone, who surprised most by winning a lone French Open crown in 2010 at age 30 and, after reaching the final in Paris again the next year, never advanced beyond the fourth round at a major; and Iva Majoli, the Croat who also sneaked to a French Open title in 1997 and then, after reaching the quarters in Paris the next year, also never got beyond the fourth round of a major.
Kerber, at 28 a late bloomer, has dedicated herself to improving both her fitness and her game. She has added controlled aggression to a once predominantly defensive game. With her powerful core and cyclist's thighs, she squats so low that she almost sits on court to bat back her opponent's deepest and heaviest balls.
A crafty counterpuncher, Kerber changes direction of the ball better than anyone. She gets tremendous upper-body torque and uncorks offensive shots deep down the line or at crazy cross-court angles, converting defense into offense at the flick of a wrist.
Asked if she had been prepared for this level of success, Kerber said, “Actually, not really, because last year when I played a good year, I mean, I won four titles.
“And then I sit down with my coach, and we said, ‘OK, what we have to improve?’” she continued. “And I was trying to improving my game, being more aggressive, and not just playing from the defensive end."
“I don't know if I was like prepared for this, but I think I played amazing year,” said Kerber. “It's my third Grand Slam final now in one year, so I just try to enjoy it.
“I just try to stay relaxed and just try to play like I'm playing the last few months.”
Angelique Kerber is tenacious, a fighter. The gritty German has demonstrated that she has the will to reach the top; now it’s a question of taking the next step, and staying there.
“I'm growing with all the situation, all the stuff what I'm dealing with. It's not so easy, and I think this is the biggest thing what I'm proud about it,” Kerber argued.
Sounds like the right attitude.