NEW YORK • The margin of success can be so fine, even with all the work Angelique Kerber has done on herself and her tennis game.
And, as she hoisted her second Grand Slam singles trophy of the year - and of her career - on Saturday at the US Open, it seemed appropriate to wind back the tape eight months to the Australian Open.
In the first round there, she faced a match point in the second-set tiebreaker against the unseeded Misaki Doi and escaped only when Doi's shot hit the tape and fell back on the Japanese's side of the net.
"What would (have happened) had she not won that match point?" ESPN pundit Mary Joe Fernandez asked on Saturday, shortly before Kerber went out and played her latest remarkable match to defeat 10th-seeded Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in the US Open final.
Lose to Doi in January, and Kerber would not have gone on to win her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, where she beat Serena Williams in a three-set thriller.
Lose to Doi in January, and Kerber might never have found the state of mind necessary to experience this remarkable mid-career renaissance at 28. Such tiny margins can have such big consequences. But the results were there for all to see down the stretch on Saturday at the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Kerber, the No. 2 seed, won a very fine match in style, rallying from a break of serve down in the third set to defeat an opponent who had overpowered her, 6-3, 6-1, in the Cincinnati final just last month.
"You saw it in the match," Kerber's coach Torben Beltz said of the changes in his charge. "If she's a break down, she never gives up. I think she never gives up. She's the fighter she was before, but right now she believes more in herself."
After she had completed her victory, she reached up to embrace Pliskova and then climbed up to hug Beltz and others in the players' box. Then she descended to her courtside chair, put a towel to her face and sobbed at length.
"It was everything, I think, because of all the pressure in the last few months," said Kerber, who became the first woman without the surname "Williams" to win two women's singles Grand Slam titles in one season since Belgium's Justine Henin in 2007. "To win here is very special for me. Everything start(ed) for me here in 2011. This Grand Slam is really, really special."
In 2011, Kerber arrived in New York with a world ranking of No. 92 and made a very unexpected run to the semi-finals before losing to eventual champion Sam Stosur.
Now she has won two Major titles and reached this year's Wimbledon final, where she lost to Serena Williams, and took silver in singles at last month's Rio Olympics.
It all adds up to a phenomenal and unexpected season and further proof that it is possible to make a breakthrough at an advanced tennis age. The most recent previous example was Italian Flavia Pennetta, who won her first Major singles title at the US Open last year at 33.
Pennetta has retired but Kerber has every intention of continuing to ride her wave.
Always a great defender and counter-puncher with a capacity to hit the crowd-pleasing shot, she has made her move by getting fitter and quicker, attacking with more frequency and making improvements to her serve. She won 51 per cent of her second-serve points at the US Open and 53 per cent against Pliskova despite the Czech's best efforts to attack on her returns.
Kerber will today become the oldest player in the history of the Women's Tennis Association rankings to reach No. 1 for the first time. She is the first German to win the US Open since Steffi Graf, her childhood idol and mentor, in 1996.
Graf sent her a good luck text before the match, which at two hours and seven minutes turned out to be as gruelling as it was entertaining.
It was hot (close to 32 deg C) and muggy (63 per cent humidity), but both first-time US Open finalists kept hustling and taking chances.
In the end, Kerber won it with great defence, tracking down Pliskova's big shots to the corners. She won it by being steadier. She won it with clever, sliced left-handed serves at the right moments. But above all, she won it by going for it.
"She's grown as a player," Fernandez said. "She doesn't just play defence any more. She plays aggressively. I think her forehand down the line is one of the best in the game. She threads the needle beautifully."
NYTIMES, WASHING TON POST