-- NEW YORK -- Going forward, it's clear Angelique Kerber is the one to beat in women's tennis.
After failing to reach the second week of a single major last year, the German won her second of the season Saturday at the US Open. She defeated No. 10 seed? Karolina Pliskova in a smashing final 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
The newly minted No. 1-ranked player, who this year made a commitment to being more assertive, has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance at the age of 28. Kerber becomes only the second woman to win her first two Grand Slam singles titles after turning 28, joining? Li Na, who won the 2011 French Open at 29 and, three years later, the Australian Open.
But Li retired at the end of that 2014 season. Kerber isn't going anywhere.
With Serena Williams turning 35 later this month, there are telling signs that her dominance is deteriorating. Kerber, the quintessential late bloomer, seems poised to play the role of perennial champion for the next several years.
Patience was the virtue that rewarded Kerber in the end, as she came back from a 3-1 deficit in the third set. Afterward, she blew kisses to the crowd and sobbed, head in hands, on her changeover chair.
"It's just amazing," Kerber said in her on-court interview, voice breaking. "I won my second Grand Slam in one year. That is the best year in my career.
"All the dreams came true this year."
This was Kerber's third Grand Slam singles final of the year, having beaten Williams at the Australian Open before losing to her at Wimbledon. That winning check for $3.5 million surely will go a long way, but the confidence she draws from this smashing breakthrough? Priceless.
The match ran 2 hours, 7 minutes with Kerber holding a narrow 97-90 margin in points. It was a rare competitive match in a women's final here, only the fourth three-setter in 22 years.
Three weeks ago in Cincinnati, Pliskova carved up Kerber in the final 6-3, 6-1. But Kerber said she was tired after playing the Rio Olympics, where she won the silver medal. Pliskova elected to pass on Rio and prepare for Cincinnati and the US Open. This result suggests fatigue was a leading factor in their previous match.
Kerber has a wonderfully complete game. She's a relentless retriever and hits the ball hard off both wings. She artfully moved the spidery 6-foot-1 Czech player around the court, consistently working her into more untenable positions. And while her second serve remains a vulnerability -- Pliskova did little with her offerings of 75-77 mph -- Kerber rarely plays a loose point.
The bottom-line numbers confirmed this: Pliskova hit 40 winners, but they were countered by 47 unforced errors. Kerber, on the other hand, was more efficient, hitting 21 winners and only 17 unforced errors -- 30 fewer than Pliskova.
Make no mistake, Pliskova is a serious keeper.
She was fatigued at the end, understandably, after her journey here. Interestingly, 10 of the past 13 players to beat Serena Williams at a major, now including Pliskova, lost their next match.
Pliskova's first game in a Grand Slam singles final was a worst-case scenario. She made nervous errors on both wings that were almost painful to watch, missed four of six first serves -- and broke a string.
For that one game, Pliskova suddenly seemed to realize where she was -- four rounds past anything she had ever experienced in a major. But after she lost the first set, something curious happened. Pliskova slipped back into that comfort zone that has enveloped her this fortnight.
This summer alone she beat five of the WTA's top 10 players.
"I just found in myself some power in the second set," Pliskova said in her on-court interview. "Even [though] I couldn't get the win, I'm really happy.
"Hopefully many more finals to come."
Pliskova has been a revelation this tournament, becoming only the fourth woman to defeat both Serena and Venus Williams in the same Grand Slam event. She saved a match point against Venus in the fourth round and, in the semifinals against Serena, out-served the best women's server of all time.
Women's tennis finds itself in transition these days.
Serena Williams and Roger Federer are about to be the same age;? Maria Sharapova, 29, is sitting out a two-year drug ban; and Victoria Azarenka, 27, is pregnant. A group of younger players have failed to create separation: Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska, Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens.
In recent years, three young players have inserted themselves into the Grand Slam conversation: Petra Kvitova won the 2011 Wimbledon title at 21 and repeated there three years later. Azarenka won the 2012 Australian Open at age 22, then repeated the following year. Garbine Muguruza won the French Open earlier this year at the age of 22.
And now, Angelique Kerber has won two of the past four majors. She's seven months younger than Novak Djokovic, her No. 1 counterpart on the men's side.
Get ready, tennis fans. It's Kerber's time.