Sunday, August 9, 2015

That's the breaks: Kerber outlasts Pliskova for title

Angelique Kerber poses with a stuffed bear, the symbol
of California, after winning the Bank of the West
Classic at Stanford. Photo by Mal Taam
   STANFORD, Calif. — Not once was nerves mentioned during interviews after today's Bank of the West final.
   How else do you explain 18 service breaks in Angelique Kerber's 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Karolina Pliskova at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on the campus of Stanford University?
   Or seven consecutive breaks in the second set?
   Or four straight breaks in the third set?
   Or Pliskova's 10 double faults in the match, many at critical times?
   Yes, it was breezy, but that didn't seem to be a factor.
   Let's face it. Pliskova choked in the last game. Big time.
   Serving at 4-5, the tall (6-foot-1 or 1.86-meter), slender Czech double-faulted on game point. The fourth-seeded Pliskova then slugged a forehand long to give Germany's Kerber, seeded fifth, her first championship point. Pliskova saved it with a forehand putaway set up by a strong serve.
   Pliskova double-faulted again to hand Kerber, a 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) left-hander, another championship point. This time, Pliskova netted a routine forehand.
   Kerber put a positive spin, so to speak, on the service breaks.
   "I think at the end we both were returning very well," said Kerber, who will rise three places to No. 11 when the new rankings are released Monday. "Yeah, we were breaking like every single game. It was up and down. I was just trying to focus on every game. It doesn't matter if I won my serve or I lost it, because I knew I had the chance to break again.
   "At the end, I was not thinking too much about this because every point was important. I was just happy that I broke her in the last game again."
Kerber rejoices after winning championship point against
Karolina Pliskova. Photo by Mal Taam
   Pliskova, who will improve three notches to No. 8 in her top-10 debut, said she simply had a bad serving day.  
   "I was definitely off my serve," lamented Pliskova, who converted 58 percent of her first serves to Kerber's 63 percent. "I didn't feel it at all, first serve or second serve. That's a problem for me. The serve is my best shot. I needed it today, and it wasn't working. That's why I lost the match."
   Pliskova's first serve averaged 104 mph (167 kph) in the final, 19 mph (31.6 kph) faster than Kerber's. Yet Kerber, who won the pre-match coin toss, elected to receive. She undoubtedly hoped Pliskova would be nervous and drop her serve, which is exactly what happened.    
   The final, in front of an announced crowd of 2,757, pitted Pliskova's powerful serve and groundstrokes against Kerber's consistency and superb defense.
   "She's one of the fittest girls on the tour," Pliskova said. "She has strong legs, and she's defending pretty good. It's tough for me to (end the point) because you have to close it like four times.
   "She must be fit because the match she played against Aga (Radwanska on Friday night) was amazing, and then yesterday she was fresh. I think even after today she's going to be fresh."
   In the match of the tournament and one of the best of the year, Kerber also subdued the second-seeded Radwanska 6-4 in the third set, winning the last two games, in a 2-hour, 26-minute quarterfinal. Kerber returned late Saturday afternoon to dismiss eighth-seeded Elina Svitolina of Ukraine 6-3, 6-1 in a 55-minute semifinal.
   "I (do) a lot of fitness besides the tennis court to be ready," Kerber said today. "After Friday's match, where I was standing 2 1/2 hours on the court, (I had) to recover very fast and be ready for the next day. It's hard work to get really fit, but (it pays off) on the court."
Pliskova has won only one of her WTA tour-high five finals
this year, but each previous loss came against a top-10 player.
Photo by Mal Taam
   The final was played in a brisk 2 hours, 7 minutes, including Pliskova's medical timeout late in the second set to have her right ankle taped after she had tweaked it. After one shaky game, Pliskova moved well the rest of the match.
   About half of the time in the final, Pliskova ripped a forehand or backhand passing shot to the corner. The other half, Kerber scraped her knees on the court to dig out a penetrating blast and kept the ball in play until Pliskova slugged the ball out.
   Indeed, Pliskova finished with 52 winners and 52 unforced errors. Kerber's ratio, meanwhile, was almost 2-to-1 (27 to 14).
   The match was a standoff at 4-4 in the third set, but the 27-year-old Kerber has more experience handling pressure than Pliskova, 23.
   "I was trying to stay in the moment after I lost the second set and trying to be aggressive and trying to go for it in the important moments," Kerber said. "In the third set, I think there were just two or three balls which decides the win. I'm happy that I was going for it and not just pushing the ball back and hoping for mistakes. I think that was the key for me at the end."
   A two-time Grand Slam semifinalist, Kerber has ended the last three years in the top 10. She climbed to a career-high No. 5 in 2012.
   After going 0-4 in finals last year, Kerber improved to 4-0 this year.
   "I have a lot of experience from last year from all my finals," Kerber explained. "I'm just trying to go out there and enjoy the final. Every time I reach the final, I know I had a great week already, so (I tell myself), 'Just go out there and try your best.' "       
Pliskova will debut in the top 10 on Monday, rising three notches to No. 8.
Photo by Mal Taam
   Pliskova, in contrast, has won only one of her WTA tour-high five finals this year. But each of the previous losses came against a top-10 player at the time: No. 4 and countrywoman Petra Kvitova in Sydney, No. 4 Simona Halep in Dubai and No. 10 Kerber. The latter loss was 7-6 in the third set two months ago on grass in Birmingham, England. Pliskova's victory was against No. 74 Lucie Hradecka on clay in their national capital of Prague.
   Also, Pliskova's Grand Slam record is revealing. Though still young, she has never advanced past the third round in 13 appearances.
    Kerber earned $124,000 and became the first German to win the San Francisco Bay Area title since Bettina Bunge beat countrywoman Sylvia Hanika in 1983, when the tournament was held at what is now Oracle Arena in Oakland.
   The title was especially sweet for Kerber because she had lost to Serena Williams in last year's Bank of the West final. Williams, who defeated then-No. 45 Pliskova in the second round of that tournament, withdrew late week with a right elbow injury. She will try to become the first player in more than a quarter-century to win a calendar-year Grand Slam in the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 31.
   Pliskova, who collected $66,100, became the first Czech-born woman to reach the final since Martina Navratilova lost to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1994 in Oakland. Navratilova won the last of her five titles in the tournament in 1993 while representing the United States.
   Pliskova is distinctive for more than her height and power. Her twin sister, Kristyna, is ranked No. 113. Also, Karolina has elaborate Polynesian tattoos above her left elbow and on her upper left thigh.
   The tattoos have no meaning, ESPN2 commentator Patrick McEnroe said during Saturday's semifinals. Pliskova just likes the look, McEnroe added.     
   In today's doubles final, unseeded Yi-Fan Xu and Zheng Saisai of China routed second-seeded Anabel Medina Garrigues and Arantxa Parra Santonja of Spain 6-1, 6-3.
   Xu and Zheng split $39,000, and Medina Garrigues and Parra Santonja divided $20,650.
   Medina Garrigues and Parra Santonja were trying to become the second straight Spanish team to win the title. Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro triumphed last year.
   Medina Garrigues, 33, last week was named the Co-Female MVP of World TeamTennis as a member of the Sacramento-based California Dream. Sacramento is a two-hour drive northeast of Stanford. 

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