Cincinnati Premier: Pliskova wins biggest title to deny Kerber the No1 ranking
Karolina Pliskova eases to a 6-1, 6-3 victory over world no2 Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati Premier final
The dice seemed to be falling well for Angelique Kerber as she edged ever nearer the second huge milestone of 2016 and of her entire career.
The season had begun with her Grand Slam breakthrough to win the Australian Open over defending champion Serena Williams, denying the world No1 the hugely significant 22nd Major that would draw her level with Steffi Graf’s 22.
Perhaps, indeed, the German Kerber drew inspiration from the countrywoman she so admired.
During 2015, Williams had ended her season two matches short of the calendar Grand Slam that would have matched Graf’s unique Open era achievement. The American lost in the semis of the US Open, exhausted both physically and mentally by her pursuit of the targets thrown down by Graf, and she would not return to the tour until Melbourne—where Kerber delayed her campaign again.
Last year, Kerber ended the season with as many match-wins as anyone on the tour, and this year, she already arrived at the Cincinnati final with more wins under her belt than all her rivals—46 of them, including 19 of her past 22 via the Wimbledon and Olympic finals.
But she fell just short of gold in Rio in a long, demanding final, before hot-footing it to the Western and Southern Open to try and claim what might arguably be an even more prestigious prize: the No1 ranking.
When the mighty Williams last rose to the top of the rankings, she became the oldest woman to do so. Three and a half years later, and now aged 34, she was still there, and into her 183rd consecutive week at No1.
It just so happens that the second longest streak of 186 weeks belongs to Graf—the number that Williams would equal if she kept the top ranking this week, because the top spot could not then change until after the US Open. Could Kerber be the fly in Williams’ ointment again?
All the German had to do to displace Williams, who had been forced to pull out of the tournament with a shoulder injury, was win the Cincinnati title, but to set up this opportunity, Kerber had played a relentless schedule. Since reaching the Wimbledon final—where Williams did match Graf’s 22—she had not taken a break through Bastad, Montreal and Rio.
Meanwhile, her No17-ranked opponent, Karolina Pliskova, had bypassed the Olympics, and was drawn in the half in which both Williams and Petra Kvitova had been replaced by Lucky Losers.
But fatigue was not the only issue that Kerber faced. Pliskova was a woman on the rise, and victory would take her to No11 in the rankings.
Based on their last four matches, split 2-2, this would be no easy contest, especially as Kerber’s two victories had both been close three-setters. And sure enough, the German looked heavy-legged from the outset.
Pliskova raced to a 4-0 lead before the German got on the scoreboard with a love hold. However, Kerber broke at the fourth time of asking in the sixth game to edge to 4-2.
Pliskova halted Kerber’s comeback in the eighth to hold for 5-3 and promptly broke the German for a third time for the set, 6-3.
The tall Czech carried her momentum into the second set, too, holding the opening game, breaking for a 2-0 lead, and holding again for 3-0. A net cord on return of serve in the sixth game gave Pliskova another opening, and a Kerber double fault handed a second break, 5-1.
It took Pliskova two attempts to serve it out via two deuces, but with just 62 minutes on the clock, she did so with a couple of aces, 6-1.
Kerber looked drained—as her 32 unforced errors affirmed—but the elegant Pliskova had played confidently, hitting 24 winners to just 16 from Kerber.
The Czech could not fail to mention the enormity of the match for her opponent:
“I know [Angie] was playing for World No1; I think you deserve to be No1, but maybe next time!”
‘Next time’ may come in New York in three weeks’ time: Williams has semi-final points to defend and Kerber only third round points. Much may depend on the fitness of the former and the fatigue of the latter, but their battle for supremacy is sure to make compelling viewing—for Graf as much as for anyone.