One of the most underrated thrillers this year came in the quarterfinals of the Toray Pan Pacific Open, where the fans witnessed a repeat of the 2016 US Open final. Angelique Kerber, who had been struggling all year, managed to regain her form in Tokyo and faced just her second top-10 opponent of the year in Karolina Pliskova.
The German was ranked the number one player in the world for half of 2017, but lackluster results which saw her reach just four quarterfinals entering Tokyo saw her exit the top-10 for the first time since 2015. Meanwhile, Pliskova debuted at the top spot after Wimbledon before her reign ended at the US Open, with this being a clash of former world number ones and a repeat of the final in Flushing Meadows last year. Unexpectedly, Kerber arguably put in her best performance of the year to upset the world number four for her first top-20 win in 2017, taking a tight 7-6, 7-5 win after an hour and 49 minutes of play.
Kerber steals the tight first set
The first games were already a premonition of what would happen in the match — with both players looking extremely strong on their serves and neither being able to mount a breakthrough on the return. However, it was the underdog who took the first initiative and started going for the powerful returns off the second serves, though she was given some help by Pliskova’s unforced errors. Nonetheless, the Czech was able to fend off three break points in a lengthy 10-minute game which featured five deuces.
From there, the quality of the match only got better with both players displaying a thrilling encounter of aggression against counterpunching. Pliskova stepped up her returns and forced two break points of her own, but Kerber was just too good as she was surprisingly being the aggressor in the match.
The set was ultimately brought into a tiebreak, with the German seemingly being able to run away with the set after jumping out to a 5-2 lead. Pliskova’s toughest efforts saw her fight back to close out the deficit, but the nerves affected her as she threw in an unfortunate double-fault on set point — and just like this, Kerber took the first set 7-6 after 55 minutes.
Serving dominance continues but the German takes the tight win eventually
Carrying over the momentum into the second set, Kerber had the perfect start as she looked extremely confident on her serves, being on course for a first top-20 win of the year. Pliskova found herself in some deep trouble after facing five break points in the second game, facing the huge risk of falling behind a set and a break. However, her tough mentality was clearly reflected when the Czech fearlessly went for her shots despite the overwhelming pressure, and her merciless offense eventually saved her from the brink.
Similar to the first set, the world number four went on to earn her own chances but were too indecisive on the crucial points. In fact, both players performed extremely well on the offense, but when it came to break points, they were too overly-passive. It was one-way traffic for the servers till Kerber had to fend off a nervy break point at 5-5, with Pliskova narrowly missing a backhand which ultimately saw her failing to convert her opportunities again.
The German took advantage of her chances, applying pressure on Pliskova’s second serves as the Czech served to stay in the match. Although four match points came and gone, it was fifth-time lucky for the two-time Grand Slam champion as she closed out the match in some style — a cross-court backhand winner while on the defense.
Stats Corner: Incredibly solid performance from both players
Interestingly enough, the match only featured one break of serve — which came in the last game. The fans had a glimpse at Kerber’s peak serving as she won an impressive 69 percent of first service points before just losing 10 points behind her solid second deliveries throughout the match. Pliskova performed even better on her first serves, serving seven aces with just 12 points lost.
However, second serves were her downfall as she threw in eight double-faults while winning less than half of those points. One of those double-faults came on set point in the first set as well. Arguably, the break point conversion rate was the statistic which decided the outcome of the encounter. Kerber converted just 1/13 of her break points while Pliskova missed all five of her break chances.
Aftermath: Kerber finds her form but fails to follow up her result
This was Kerber’s best win of the year but she failed to carry her good run into the next round as she was ousted by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three tough sets despite mounting an incredible comeback in the process. Early exits in Wuhan and Beijing ensued before Kerber ended the year on a four-match losing streak having gone winless in Luxembourg and Zhuhai as well.
Meanwhile, Pliskova also had a relatively disappointing Asian Swing after only reaching two quarterfinals, but still managed to qualify for the semifinals at the WTA Finals with excellent 6-2, 6-2 wins over Venus Williams and Garbine Muguruza. Though her season ended on a disappointing note having fallen to Caroline Wozniacki, Pliskova had an impressive 2017 and should be proud of her achievements.