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What you need to know about the US Open women's championship
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For the second straight year in the US Open semifinals, Serena Williams—arguably the greatest player of all time—was expected to waltz into the final and add another historic milestone to her Hall of Fame resume.
And for the second straight year, an unheralded opponent—this time, 10th-ranked Karolina Pliskova—swatted away a dream final that would've determined the No. 1 ranking by stunning the top-seeded Williams 6-2, 7-6 (5) before the raucous crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Last year, in 2015, it was the unseeded, 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci bidding arrivederci to Williams, thus depriving her of winning all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year.
This year's surprising victory by the 24-year-old Pliskova, a 6-foot-1, hard-serving Czech who had never been past the third round in any of her preceding 17 major tournaments, handed Angelique Kerber the No. 1 ranking before she even took the court against the unseeded, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the late semifinal.
Kerber's left-handed forehand lasers and knee-scraping, two-fisted backhands helped pen her own chapter in tennis history by becoming the first German woman to reach No. 1 since Steffi Graf, her idol, did so in 1996.
At 28, Kerber also is the oldest player to make her debut at No. 1, surpassing Jennifer Capriati, who was 25 when she first reached numero uno in 2001. "It was not so easy to go then on court," Kerber told news outlets, adding: "I was trying to not put too much pressure on myself. I was always dreaming [about being No.1] when I was really young.''
Kerber pounced on Wozniacki—a two-time year-ending No. 1 who had tumbled to 74th partially due to an ankle injury—reeling off the first four games on the way to a routine 6-4, 6-3 victory to reach her third major final this season.
Spotlight on Serena
Williams, 34, entered the tournament with a sore serving arm and finished with a sore left knee. She seemed flat after surviving her first test of the fortnight in a grinding, three-set victory over fifth-seeded Simona Halep less than 24 hours earlier in the quarterfinals.
So Williams, a star of the Chase Mastery campaign, will have to place her quest for a record seventh US Open title on hold for another year. She will remain deadlocked with Graf for most Grand Slam titles (22) since the start of the Open Era in 1968, when all professional players were allowed to participate.
"I've been having some serious left knee problems," said Williams, whose straight-set victory over Yaroslava Shvedova in the Round of 16 was her 308th Grand Slam match win to surpass Roger Federer as the all-time leader. "I wasn't able to move the way I wanted to. 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."
Williams seemed unbeatable in the first four rounds in which she didn't drop her serve or a set. Not even her wild purple-and-black Wonder Woman ensemble, with the black compression long sleeves, could pull her through. "Nothing really went well today,'' she added. “I made a lot of errors and didn't play as well as I have been.''
A big "open" and highlights from the beginning
The final major event of the season kicked off its first evening session with music legend Phil Collins belting out a stirring rendition of his "In the Air Tonight" classic while the new $150 million retractable roof with Chase branding slowly opened above mammoth Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The roof caved in early on third-seeded French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, who after overcoming a breathing issue in the first round, fell 7-5, 6-4 in the next round to 48th-ranked Anastasija Sevastova. The 22-year-old Spaniard lost her chance to push Williams off the top of the ladder as her Roland Garros hangover lingered.
After sweeping through her first three rounds fourth-seeded Agnieska Radwanska saw her hopes of reaching her first US Open quarterfinal and a shot at the No. 1 rank dashed 6-4, 6-4 by 18-year-old Croatian crusher Ana Konjuh, another teenager not named Cece Bellis to trumpet her arrival as a future contender in majors.
The 92nd-ranked Konjuh, who three years ago was the top-ranked junior in the world, seemed, "paralyzed with fear,'' as Evert aptly put it on the ESPN telecast in Pliskova's 6-2, 6-2 quarterfinal beatdown.
One can't overlook the first-week dramatics of Madison Keys, the best American not named Williams, who reached her career-best fourth consecutive Sweet 16 in majors this year before being rudely dismissed by Kerber.
The eighth-seeded Keys, 21, began her perilous journey by outlasting fellow America Allison Riske in a 2-hour, 26-minute marathon that didn't end on Ashe until 1:48 a.m. Tuesday morning, the latest finish for a women's match ever at the US Open.
Sevastova, who actually retired from tennis for a year-and-a-half due to injuries in 2013, eventually knocked off 13th-seeded Johanna Konta to reach the quarters. Konta, the top-ranked Brit, was happy to survive her second-round match against Tsvetana Pironkova after collapsing on the court with heart palpitations at 5-6 of the second set. The injury bug bit Sevastova again in her quarterfinal match with Wozniacki when she sprained her right ankle on a fall in the second game of the match before gimping to a 6-0, 6-2 loss.
A resurgent Wozniacki, who was two points away from an opening-round loss to young American Taylor Townsend, continued her love affair with the Big Apple where the 26-year-old Dane has an apartment and where she reached her only two Grand Slam finals, losing to Serena in 2014 and Kim Clijsters in 2009.
Kerber, who hasn't dropped a set in her six matches, was down 4-5 to the seventh-seeded Vinci in the quarters. But the Italian—who had to be the most overlooked returning finalist in tournament history—never recovered after she was called for an untimely foot fault/double fault on set point before losing 7-5, 6-0.
What you need to know about the final match
Kerber began her career year with her first major title in Australia by dispatching Williams in the final, but Serena got her revenge in the Wimbledon final. Instead of Kerber-Williams III in Saturday's 4 p.m. final, in which Chase is the presenting sponsor, it will be the seventh meeting between Pliskova and Kerber.
Kerber has a 4-3 edge, but it was Pliskova who denied an exhausted Kerber the No. 1 ranking a few weeks ago in the Cincinnati final, when the German was clearly pushed in her silver-medal run in the Rio Olympics. Pliskova may have the big serve and huge forehand, but Kerber has the upper hand in experience, stamina and Djokovic-like defense as well as the new found confidence that comes with being the number one player on the planet.
"I will just do anything to win the title here,'' Pliskova said.
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Harvey Fialkov is a Chase News & Stories contributor. He covers tennis and hockey for the Sun-Sentinel, in Florida.