NEW YORK, NY, USA - Closing the book on the US Open with a look back on the stories that dominated the fortnight.
1. Angelique Kerber takes control.
Let's be honest: The World No.1 wasn't always considered a pressure player, and that's putting it mildly. In 2015, which was a fantastic season for Kerber, she was 15-12 in three-set matches. Most notably, she was on the losing end of the biggest ones. There was the 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 loss to Victoria Azarenka in the third round of the US Open, which many considered to be the best match of the year. A few weeks before that she lost, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 to Simona Halep at the Rogers Cup. There were two tough three-set losses to Garbiñe Muguruza at the French Open and Wimbledon as well.
Kerber admits now that those losses were painful reminders when push came to shove, she was getting shoved. So she put her foot down and she decided to push back. Step in, be aggressive, don't wait for your opponent to give you the match. Play to win. Back yourself. Take control. This season? She's won 15 of the 20 three-set matches she's played. After learning from the losses, she also learned from the wins, such as her three-set triumph against Serena Williams in Australia.
That transformation was on full display against Karolina Pliskova in the US Open final. Playing her solid counter-punching gamestyle, she cruised for a set and a half. Then the nerves came as Pliskova's level elevated, and she played a nervy service game to get broken and lost the second. Still reeling, she fell behind an early break at 1-3 in the decider. Then she said, "Enough."
Three games from losing out on a chance to consolidate her No.1 ranking with a second major title, Kerber started taking her swings. No single shot has defined her 2016 season like the impossible forehand down the line winner she nailed at 3-3, 30-all in that third set. She was six feet behind the baseline, running deep into her forehand corner outside the tramlines. 10 out of 10 times every instinct in your body would tell you to pull it back cross-court, keep yourself in the point, and force your opponent to hit another ball.
Angelique Kerber? She's a little different.
"When I was going down the line I knew, Okay, now I have to risk a little bit, because this is the only chance I can get," Kerber said afterwards. "When I won the point I knew, 'Okay, I have the feeling. Now just to go for it and [not] making the mistakes I make like a lot of times before.' I was not thinking too much that this is a final. I was just trying to take the challenge, third set, it's 3-All, and just go for it."
"Going for it," is a common refrain from Kerber these days. Even on a chance that small, on a stage that big, she backed herself and went all in. As the ball floated onto the baseline, Kerber let out the biggest full-body double-fistpump roar I've ever seen from her. She knew it before anyone else in the stadium did.
The pressure was gone. The match was over. The title was hers.
2. Karolina Pliskova is a world beater.
Overshadowed for obvious reasons after a top notch final was the fact that Pliskova backed up her phenomenal run to the Western & Southern Open title with yet another two weeks of unflinching tennis. In the last four weeks she beat the three reigning major champions, Serena Williams, Kerber (in Cincinnati), and Garbiñe Muguruza, as well as Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova. She also proved she was clutch.
With 23,000 fans roaring against her, she faced down match point against Venus and went on to win, and then ousted Serena in straight sets. She ran out of gas at the end of the third set in the final, but up until that aforementioned Kerber forehand, she had proven herself not only a worth contender but a worthy champion. Playing in the biggest match of her life, Pliskova brought her entire arsenal and played like a woman who had been there before.
But perhaps even more importantly, she played like a woman who will be there again.
3. Caroline Wozniacki isn't done yet.
Ranked No.74 at the start of the tournament, the Dane was well below the radar. With injuries keeping her off the tour for stretches throughout the season, she had also become an afterthought. Had the tour moved on without the former No.1? Not so fast.
Wozniacki lost just one set to make her first Slam semifinal since her final run in New York in 2014, beating Taylor Townsend, Monica Niculescu, and then Kuznetsova and Madison Keys back-to-back before rolling past a hobbled Anastasija Sevastova. She's now back in the Top 30 and has a lot to build on during the fall season in Asia, where she believes she'll be fresher physically and mentally than most of the field. If she's healthy we could see her back in the Top 20 before the end of the year. That would set her up for a charge in 2017.
4. The gap continues to close between Serena and the field.
The ranking may change, but Serena is still, for now, the standard-bearer in the locker room. When she plays her best, as she did at Wimbledon, she remains unbeatable. But New York confirmed what has been the sense all season, that Serena's B-level game, which would win her bushels of matches in the past, is more vulnerable than it used to be.
Simona Halep put forth her best single performance of the season to take Serena to three sets, facing down 12 break points in the second set. Less than 24 hours later, Serena was back on court to face Pliskova in the semifinals and she lacked the sharpness that was on display in the first week. Serena dismissed any concerns of fatigue but acknowledged that she had been dealing with a knee injury since the second round. That was enough margin for Pliskova to pull off the upset.
5. Experience matters.
I was struck by a very interesting take on the concept of experience from 18-year-old Naomi Osaka. The teen had just blown a 5-1 lead in the third set to lose to Madison Keys in the third round, a loss that saw her nerves laid bare as the New York crowd grew louder and louder with every Keys comeback. Osaka was asked whether her lack of experience - this is her first full year on tour - lost her the match.
"Getting experience is good, but I feel like if you're a really good player it wouldn't really matter if the place is new or if you're traveling or whatever. Like, experience is good and whatever, right? But like not having experience, if you're good enough, it shouldn't really matter. Okay?"
Osaka has a point. If you're good enough, you're good enough. Watching the final unfold between Kerber and Pliskova, I thought back to Osaka's point. Here's Pliskova, who had never been past the third round of a Slam, playing like a veteran in her first Slam final, just 48 hours after doing the same to beat Serena. Maybe experience really is overrated.
Then Pliskova unraveled, very quickly, after losing the 3-1 lead, while Kerber soared, playing of course in her third major final of the year. Put me back in the experience camp.
6. You do you, Anastsija Sevastova.
The 26-year-old has beautiful stroke production and a keen mind for the chessboard on the tennis court. She also wears her emotions on her sleeve, for better and worse. She feels like a throwback player in a way and her sarcastic, plain-spoken, honest presence in the interview room was both refreshing and entertaining.
7. Madison Keys takes two steps forward, one step back.
Too often in the past we would see Keys get behind in the scoreline and disappear. That has been less of a problem in her fantastic 2016 season.
Keys was "The Cardiac Kid" in the first week of the tournament, coming back from being two points away from the loss to beat Alison Riske in the first round - that match was the latest finish of a women's match ever at the US Open - and then coming back from 1-5 down in the third to beat Osaka in the third round. The 21-year-old American showed grit and fire in willing herself to those wins, which has been a big improvement for her on the whole in 2016.
Then came her Round of 16 showdown with Wozniacki, which ended in error-strewn 6-3, 6-4 loss. Keys said the nerves were her undoing in that match and she panicked early and often when Wozniacki got a lead.
"The first week, even the first round, it's much easier to say, I'm focusing on this round and not worrying about the next round," Keys said. "Once you're in the second week it seems a little bit closer, and I feel like sometimes I definitely get ahead of myself and I start thinking how much I want it.
"Sometimes I can get away from focusing on just point by point. Then that's kind of when the nerves set in."
Keys has been working with a sports psychologist and the improvements have been evident. She's one of just four women to make the fourth round or better at every major this season (Serena, Kerber, and Radwanska have also done it). But the manner in which she lost to Wozniacki will sting.
8. Simona Halep is back to her best.
Ah, the cruelty of draws. Halep is in the form of her life right now on court but she fails to match her semifinal result from 2015, losing in the quarterfinals to Serena in three sets. For a player who has been prone to losses to lower-ranked players, note that since the French Open she has lost just three times, with all the losses coming to either Kerber (Wimbledon, Cincinnati) or Serena (US Open).
The improvements in her game, both in her movement and eye to be more aggressive was apparent in New York. Her mental game was also strong. She was able to pull herself out of her penchant for an emotional tailspin, and get back on track quickly. These are all very positive signs, and despite leaving New York in the quartefinals, Halep should be very pleased with the progress she's made over the summer.
She currently sits at No.3 in the Road to Singapore.
True friends both on and off the court, Safarova and Mattek-Sands capped off an emotional few weeks to win their third Slam title and move within one Wimbledon title of capturing the Career Grand Slam as a team. The two rallied from a set down to beat top seeds Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 in Sunday's final.
"We complement each other so well," Safarova said. "Our games just fit. We have done so well in all the tournaments, and now this year has been tough year for us because I have been out for half a year with my sickness and missed Australia. Then Bethanie broke her finger just before French Open. But we both stuck together and believed that once we are again strong, healthy, and feeling that we can do this, and we did, so it's amazing."
10. Team France rebounds.
Mladenovic and Garcia may not have walked away with the title, but the top seeds at the US Open should be very happy with their tournament given the disappointment of the summer. The team was a heavy medal favorite at the Olympics and lost early. Heading into the US Open they were on a three-match losing streak. But they pulled it together to score two good wins over Sania Mirza/Barbora Strycova and Martina Hingis/CoCo Vandeweghe to make their second Slam final of the year.
Emptying out the notebook:
- Best performance: Ana Konjuh vs. Agnieszka Radwanska, Round of 16. The 18-year-old could not have played a more perfect match to beat Radwanska, 6-4, 6-4. The No.4 did not play poorly. Konjuh just had all the answers and her ability to work the angles and feather drop shots kept Radwanska off balance all night. No performance had me constantly in a slack-jawed state.
- Best match: Karolina Pliskova vs. Venus Williams, Round of 16. The final between Kerber and Pliskova should probably take the cake, given what was on the line and the fact that it was of a higher quality from first point to last. The quarterfinal between Halep and Serena was also absurdly good. But Pliskova vs. Williams is my pick simply because of the dramatic nature of the match. Pliskova saved match point, Venus saved three match points, and it all came down to a third-set tie-break, which Pliskova broke open with an absurd backhand stab pick-up volley. Pliskova went on to win, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(3).
- Biggest upset: Karolina Pliskova vs. Serena Williams, semifinals. Pliskova had every reason to blink against Serena. She barely wavered and Serena eventually buckled in the tie-break, double-faulting twice including on match point. Pliskova won 6-2, 7-6(5).
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.