NEW YORK – There will be a new queen of women’s tennis when the new rankings come out on Monday, and she’s a 28-year-old lefty from Germany named Angelique Kerber, who also happens to be a US Open finalist.
After 186 weeks – the same number of consecutive weeks as another tennis legend, Steffi Graf – Serena Williams no longer owns the top spot. That’s a streak that’s unlikely to be challenged again, and the two may well end up both owning shares of it forever.
At 28, Kerber is the oldest first-time No. 1 in WTA Tour history, the second German after Graf, and the first lefthander since Monica Seles 20 years ago. This is her third major final of the season.
The circumstances in which Kerber ascended to the throne were the tennis equivalent of clinching the pennant in the clubhouse.
She was waiting in the locker room for her US Open semi-final match against unseeded Caroline Wozniacki when Williams, who played the first match, was beaten 6-2, 7-6 (5) by 24-year-old Karolina Pliskova, the No. 10 seed. Williams needed to make the final to at least have a shot at remaining No. 1, so the defeat in the semi-finals clinched it.
Kerber wouldn’t address it in her pre-match interview and the on-court announcer didn’t even introduce her as the new world No. 1. So it was a momentous occasion that sort of came and went with a whimper, as the German remained resolutely focused on the task directly in front of her.
Then she went out and defeated a subdued Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3.
"It's just incredible. It's a great day. I was trying to focus on this match, but to be here in the final for the first time, that means a lot and to be No. 1 in the world, that sounds amazing," Kerber said in her on-court interview after the victory.
It was a night of firsts. Pliskova had been to the US Open six previous times and had gotten past the second round only once. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who predicted she would reach the final.
In beating both Serena and sister Venus Williams in a third-set tiebreak in the fourth round, Pliskova became only the fourth player during the sisters’ long career to defeat both in a Grand Slam.
The other three were Martina Hingis (2001), Justine Henin (2007) and Kim Clijsters (2009), No. 1s, multiple Grand Slam title winners and Hall-of-Famers all.
“My goal when I came to US Open was to get to the third round, which I never did. I gave my all to beat Venus, so I always believe I can go farther if I can beat a player like this,” Pliskova said during a TV interview after the win. “Right now, probably America hates me because I beat both sisters, but I’m happy.”
Kerber had a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking two weeks ago; she needed to win the leadup tournament in Cincinnati to do it. But Kerber was beaten badly – as it happens, by Pliskova – and thus set up the drama most tennis fans hoped would end up in a Saturday afternoon showdown
The script went like this: Serena vs. Kerber for the US Open title, and the No. 1 ranking. But it won’t play out that way, which no doubt has the television networks cringing at what kind of ratings this unexpected women’s final might bring.
Williams was into her media conference quickly, dressed simply, her hair tied back, minimal makeup. She looked stunning and although it was clear she didn’t want to be there, and she made clear she wouldn’t talk about the No. 1 ranking, she ended up being both enlightening and feisty. It was by far her best press conference of the season.
At first, the one-sentence responses revealed nothing. But slowly, sparked by a couple of questions about the short turnaround after the bruising quarter-final win over Simona Halep in the quarter-final less than 24 hours before, Williams had a point to make.
“I wasn't tired from yesterday's match. I'm a professional player; been playing for over 20 years. If I can't turn around after 24 hours and play again then I shouldn't be on Tour. So I definitely wasn't tired from yesterday's match at all,” she said. “It wasn't a five-hour match. I have practiced three hours, so it wasn't that huge of a deal.”
Williams was clearly hampered in her movement, though. Often in recent years she has gotten off to slow starts, needing more time to get her body and legs moving. But this was more than that.
Coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who is both Williams’ guru and an analyst on ESPN during this tournament – does that sound familiar, John McEnroe and Milos Raonic? – told ESPN Williams had pain in her left knee Wednesday.
“We hoped it would be okay tonight. Clearly it was not. I don’t remember the last time she moved so slow, but she couldn’t move. And then the match is difficult to win,’ he said. “The knee was hurting during the warm-up; she went 30 per cent compared to what she usually does because she didn’t want to make it worse. Maybe with the adrenaline of the match she would be able to overcome that and be able to play but even from the start, she was not moving at all.”
Shortly after, Williams didn’t deny it.
“I have been having some serious left knee problems. I wasn't tired. Fatigue had absolutely nothing to do with it. If I was tired I should definitely get into a new career,” she said. “I wasn't able to move the way I wanted to move. When you're injured you're thinking of other things when you should be just playing and thinking of your shots. My mind was just a little bit everywhere. But it was what it was.”
It’s not the first time Williams has had knee issues. It’s a chronic problem; she has little cartilage left in them, and needs injections twice a year just to keep going.
Williams lost a similar semi-final shocker to the Italian Roberta Vinci at the US Open a year ago, as she chased Steffi Graf’s all-time Grand Slam record (they are tied now). She took the rest of the season off to heal her various wounds – including the knees that also hampered her movement in that match.
She said that this year, the knee affected her head as much as her court speed.
“When you're hampered you're thinking of other things. Like I was making errors that I never make, and definitely I didn't make in this tournament in particular. So many simple, simple shots that I easily could have made,” she said. “I just blame that on just mentally thinking about my leg and just not thinking about the shot.”
She didn’t fail to give credit to Pliskova. “Karolina played great today. I think if she had played any less (well) then maybe I would have had a chance,” she said. “So I think I wasn't at 100 per cent, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win today.”
Pliskova said that Venus Williams inadvertently helped beat her sister on this night.
“Obviously the match with Venus helped me, like I said, not only with the game, but also with the crowd, also. Was my first match on Centre Court. So I knew I was to play the center court one of the sisters Williams against all the people there, so I was prepared for it,” she said. “I was prepared for a fast game, for great serving, and probably it helped me. That's why maybe I won the match today.”
Williams curtly shot down a question about her fall schedule; obviously, the health of the knee will determine that. But with zero points to defend, she could get the top spot back with some good play.
By reaching the US Open final, Kerber will jump 1,000 ranking points ahead of Williams. If she wins the title, she would be some 1700 points ahead. She will hold on to the No. 1 ranking until at least the end of the tournament in Wuhan, which begins in two weeks.
Both Williams and Kerber are entered in the big upcoming Premier events in Wuhan and Beijing; Kerber also will play a smaller tournament in Hong Kong and when you add in the ranking points from the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore (which Williams also didn’t play), she over 1,200 points to defend before the end of the season.