NEW YORK — Angelique Kerber won her first U.S. Open title and the second Grand Slam trophy of her breakthrough season, beating Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 on Saturday.
The No. 2-seeded Kerber trailed by a break at 3-1 in the third set before taking five of the last six games against a fading Pliskova, who was seeded 10th and hadn't been past the third round at a major until this tournament.
The left-handed Kerber already was assured of making her debut at No. 1 in the WTA rankings on Monday, ending Serena Williams' record-tying 186-week stay at the top.
Never a Grand Slam finalist before 2016, the German beat Williams for the Australian Open title in January, then lost to her in the Wimbledon final in July.
They seemed to be on course for a third meeting in the final at Flushing Meadows, but Pliskova eliminated Williams in the semifinals, after beating her sister, Venus, in the fourth round.
Kerber lost to Pliskova the last time they met, just three weeks ago in the final of a hard-court tournament in Cincinnati. But at the outset of this final, it was Kerber who was in charge. Her defense is exemplary, scrambling along the baseline to put her racket on seemingly every ball, crouching so low that her knees would come close to scraping the ground.
As she does against most opponents, Kerber would make Pliskova swing two, three, four extra times to try to end a point. And Pliskova was troubled by that in the early going, making 17 unforced errors in the first set alone, 14 more than Kerber.
Kerber won the toss and elected to receive, perhaps for two reasons: Her serve is the biggest question mark in her otherwise solid game, and it made sense to force Pliskova to deal with an early test of nerves. Either way, the decision worked: Pliskova double-faulted on the match's first point and got broken right from the get-go.
There were plenty of lengthy exchanges in that first set, and Kerber tended to get the better of them, winning 9 of 14 points that lasted at least 10 strokes. On one that went 15 shots, Pliskova tried a drop shot that Kerber sprinted to reach before scooping a down-the-line forehand winner to a corner.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd roared, and Kerber celebrated by raising her right hand and wagging her index finger in the air, as if to remind Pliskova — and the world — "I'm No. 1!"
But Pliskova hung in there. And after frittering away her first four break points of the match, she converted her fifth with a lob-volley winner that curled over Kerber and alit right by the baseline. Suddenly up 4-3 in the set, Pliskova turned to her coach up in the stands and yelled, pumping her fists.
Now it was a match, and as they went to the third set, both women began showing more and more emotion. Pliskova served out the second set and spiked a ball. Kerber got broken early in the third and bounced her racket off the court. Moments later, the German trailed 3-1.
But this was Kerber's turn to show some mettle, breaking back to 3-all and again to end it.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich