Saturday, September 10, 2016

2016 US OPEN: Women's Final Preview (and Semifinals Review)

Angelique Kerber (GER) [2] vs Karolina Pliskova (CZE) [10]
Here are my predictions for the women's final at the US Open for 2016. Last year I correctly predicted Flavia Pennetta would beat Roberta VinciSo far this year, I have correctly predicted 1 of 2 men's semifinals1 of 2 women's semifinals, 3 of 4 men's quarterfinals and 4 of 4 women's quarterfinals.

Women's Semifinals Review
Karolina Pliskova (CZE) [10] dSerena Williams (USA) [1] 6-2 7-6(5). For the second year in a row, Serena has had her hopes dashed in the US Open semifinal. However, this time, the result was less about her losing the match than her opponent winning it. Last year, Serena let the mental and emotional pressure of closing out the last two matches to achieve the calendar grand slam to affect her play so that she lost to a wily but feeble opponentIn this year's match Serena faced in Karolina Pliskova a 6-foot-1 powerhouse who out-aced and out-played Serena for significant stretches of the relatively short encounter. The first set was a blur, with Pliskova winning 86% of her first serve points and not facing a break point. Serena on the otherhand looked sluggish--slow to move to the ball and was broken twice despite the fact that Pliskova is not a great mover on the court. In the second set, Pliskova continued with her excellent play and was soon up a break again. However, Serena was able to break back (after earning her sole breakpoint of the match) and even nose ahead (on serve) to 4-3. But at this point it became very clear that Serena was injured, as she repeatedly was grabbing her leg and was making errors where she was off the mark by feet (not inches) or hitting balls into the bottom of the net (not the top of the tape). Although she did well to reach a tiebreak. I was fairly confident that even if she found a way to win the tiebreak, there is no way she would have won a third set. However, Serena obviated that concern by donating multiple points with unforced errors and double faults, including on match point (which she didn't even challenge). 

Angelique Kerber (GER) [2] d. Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) 6-4 6-3.  As I suspected, everything Wozniacki can do, Kerber can do better. The Dane is known for her amazing ability to retrieve balls from anywhere and to be a human backboard. But Kerber also has incredible movement, and what has fueled her ascent to the World #1 ranking is the German's addition of offense and attacking tennis to her game. It's a deadly combination when you possess the power to track down balls all day and can turn defense into offense with the flick of a wrist. This was almost certainly Wozniacki's best (and last?) chance to win her first major title but again she came up short, despite playing in the venue where she has previously had the most success. I do think that she is legitimately a top 10 contender, but that means there are a lot of things that have to go right in an improbable sequence for her to win a major. She should learn from Kerber's example and use her impressive timing to be more aggressive on court.

Women's Final Preview
The mental stakes for this match are very different for the two players. Pliskova is playing in her very first major final, while Kerber is playing in her third of the year (2016 Australian Open and 2016 Wimbledon). Having already achieved the World #1 ranking, for Kerber this title is basically icing on the cake, but she may have greater ambitions, like snagging the year-end #1 ranking. This is a possibility (if Serena sits out the rest of 2016, like she did last year) but not really under her control. By becoming the first woman to reach multiple majors in the same year (other than Serena) since Henin did it in 2008, Kerber would start writing her name in the record books. Pliskova already has her place in history assured as she becomes the first active player (4th all time) to beat both Venus and Serena) in a major tournament. Pliskova has been known as a dangerous player for years but she has never had any success at a major until the 2016 US Open. Mentally, she is very tough but she is not as athletically gifted as Kerber.

Head-to-head Kerber has a slight edge 4-3 and the two have played their last three meetings in finals, with Kerber coming out ahead 2-1. However, with the World #1 ranking on the line 3 weeks ago, Kerber blinked and Pliskova beat her relatively easily in the finals of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati 6-3 6-1. It is very unlikely that this match will not be that one sided. Pliskova is on an 11-match winning streak (she also beat Garbine Muguruza and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Cincy) and has admitted that beating Serena was even more important to her than reaching her first major final.

The key to the match will be if Pliskova can continue serving as effectively as she has been. Because Serena was physically impaired (and unfamiliar with Pliskova) she was very ineffective at returning the Czech player's serve, who can hit all four corners of the service box with the same toss. Kerber will almost certainly do a better job of dealing with Pliskova's biggest weapon than Serena did. Once the two start a rally, Kerber is a prohibitive favorite to win the point. Can Pliskova maintain her composure and continue to hit unreturnable serves after Kerber gets some lucky balls back into play? I think she can. I suspect this match will resemble a men's match (i.e. like an Isner-Nishikori), with few breaks of serve. If that happens, it will be a key advantage to Pliskova. If there are multiple exchanges of breaks that will mean that Kerber is being effective at returning serves into play and getting into Pliskova's head. It is rare that great serving outplays a great player (c.f. Roddick-Federer) and I don't think that will happen here.

MadProfessah's prediction: Kerber.

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