NEW YORK – It was going to be a tough act to follow. After No. 10-seed Karolina Pliskova’s stunning upset of top-seeded Serena Williams on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night, the other two U.S. Open women’s semifinalists took the court but everything was very different from the contest before them.
The crowd, still shocked after what they had just seen, was abuzz with chatter. The already-steamy air seemed a little bit warmer. The opponent waiting in the final was not No. 1 Williams, as many expected, but a first-time Slam finalist. And No. 2-seed Angelique Kerber was no longer the WTA’s second-ranked player.
“I was trying to not thinking too much the whole last few weeks about this, and now I reach it,” Kerber said. “So it's something really special for me, because I was dreaming for this No. 1.”
With Williams's loss, Kerber will rise to the top of the rankings on Monday, ending Williams's record-tying, 186-week reign and marking the first new WTA No. 1 since Victoria Azarenka in January 2012. But before her historic rise is official, Kerber will play for her second major title in the U.S. Open final after beating Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3 on Thursday night.
The German lefty came out firing to open the match, racing out to a quick 4-0 lead and winning 17 of the first 20 points. But Wozniacki, who had come back from 0-4 down in her second round match against No. 9-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, steadied and found her form. She hit her first winner 18 minutes into the match and slowly fought her way back for 3-4, thanks to a series of deep forehands and big backhand winners down the line. Though she was able to hold and force Kerber to serve for the set, Wozniacki’s error-laden final game gave Kerber the edge in the opener.
“I was trying to press and stay close to the line. In the beginning she really got me on the contra and just kind of counter-punched me away,” Wozniacki said after the match. “Then I stepped into the ball a bit more then and went for my shots and started going in and I started finding a rhythm. A few of the balls I went a little bit too much on and made these small mistakes. Unfortunately I came up a little short, but I have got to be proud of the way I kept going, and I just kept fighting for every point.”
In the second set, Kerber broke Wozniacki and took an early 2-0 lead. Though the Dane showed some fight, Kerber’s game proved to be too much for her too handle, as she finished with 26 unforced errors to Kerber’s 16. Wozniacki, a former No. 1 and two-time U.S. Open finalist, came into the tournament ranked No. 74 after an injury-riddled season. Kerber, who has yet to drop a set at the U.S. Open, won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January and reached the final of Wimbledon this year.
“People probably ruled me out, but it's nice to prove people wrong once again,” Wozniacki said. “It's nice to have a good run. I did my best out there today. I fought all I could, and just came up a bit short.”
At 28, Kerber is the oldest player to debut at No. 1 in the WTA rankings. Before this season, Kerber had only made it past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam twice in her career—2011 U.S. Open and 2012 Wimbledon. She says she tried to improve her mental strength during matches and focused on being more aggressive, rather than playing from the defensive end.
“I was trying to be more positive than I was the last few years, because I know that the body language is really important. I lost a lot of matches with this stuff, because I was frustrated,” Kerber said. “But in this moment I'm really trying to be mentally strong and not showing my opponent that I'm inside actually a little bit more negative and nervous. Trying to stay positive. I think the change also my game that I believe more and going for it when I have the chance and not waiting about the mistakes from my opponent.”
On Saturday she will face No. 10-seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat her 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati in early August, just before the U.S. Open.
“For sure she has a lot of confidence. Now especially against the win against Serena,” Kerber said of Pliskova. “I know it will be mentally for me also very tough because she know that she won against me like few weeks ago. But at the end I know how I was playing in Cincinnati. I know what to change.”
Kerber is the first German through to the U.S. Open final since Steffi Graf won the title in 1996 and as the new World No. 1, she will look to win her second major of the 2016 season.
“She’s playing really well. She definitely has a target on her back now,” Wozniacki said of Kerber. “Everyone wants to beat the No. 1 player in the world.”