Before Caroline Wozniacki won her first major title at the 2018 Australian Open, she didn’t even get out of the first week at the 2017 U.S. Open. The player who dismissed her from New York? Ekaterina Makarova.
Erratic but potent, Makarova is regularly — if not always — a dangerous opponent on the WTA Tour. She has not crafted the singles career she had hoped for (doubles has been a runaway success with Elena Vesnina), but she still owns a few major semifinal appearances and has to be taken seriously in every match she plays.
Every particularly good tennis player can point to a moment in a career when a threshold was crossed and the landscape brightened. However, those kinds of moments aren’t always easy for outsiders to see. Karolina Pliskova is unique in that her “before and after” moment was impossible to miss. One could choose from a few different moments, but they came within a four-week period of time in the late summer of 2016. Winning Cincinnati, saving match point against Venus Williams in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, and beating Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals transformed the way Pliskova thought about herself and similarly changed the way the tennis world thought about her. Pliskova gained a competitive epiphany which enabled her to unlock her talents in important tournaments, something she hadn’t been able to do before Cincinnati.
Pliskova’s struggles at majors were well documented — and noticeably consistent — before the 2016 U.S. Open. She kept hitting her head against the same wall — the third round — and was never able to bust through it until her fortnight in New York. The huge serve, the blistering groundstrokes, the imposing offensive game all came together, supplemented by enough defense to create a more complete profile for opponents. Naomi Osaka is just beginning to travel the path of a player who experiences a big career breakthrough. Pliskova started down that road in September of 2016.
It is undeniably true that tennis players who reach the latter stages of major tournaments and crack the top five of the rankings are judged based on how they do at the majors. Measured strictly by that category, no, Pliskova has not forged a particularly robust year and a half since the 2016 U.S. Open. She hasn’t been back to a major final. She owns a French Open semifinal, but after attaining World No. 1 last summer, she has not come particularly close to claiming a huge title. It is reasonable to critique Pliskova to a certain degree. Climbing to a higher elevation demands breathing thinner air. Handing that lofty place is part of the life of an elite tennis player, and it is clear Pliskova still has room to grow.
Yet, while Pliskova isn’t planting herself in championship matches at top-tier tournaments, let’s take a step back and realize that this is still a much better player than the one which existed before her “BC/AD” moment in August of 2016.
If Pliskova’s normal result was a third-round outcome at higher-end tournaments in the “BC” part of her tennis life, it is now a quarterfinal. She reached this level in Australia this year, she reached it in Indian Wells, she reached it at the 2017 U.S. Open.
This progression of results does not get global headlines or effusive hosannas. It is therefore easy to underappreciate. Yet, it is very solid for a player whose court coverage and overall defensive chops will consistently lag behind the competition.
Let’s go back to Makarova. Before Pliskova’s “BC/AD” moment, Makarova won all three meetings against Pliskova. It is not only conceptually reasonable, but a point of actual fact to say that before her transformation, it was very difficult for Pliskova to handle Makarova’s game. Thursday at the Miami Open, Pliskova was knotted at 5-5 in each of the two sets she played against Makarova.
This time, Pliskova prevailed in each set. This match was both a sign and confirmation of Pliskova’s evolution. That evolution might be limited in its ability to win big titles, but it is evolution and progress nonetheless.
Karolina Pliskova can still raise her ceiling a few feet — she still has work to do. However, she has already raised her floor, and that point cannot be ignored — in Miami or anywhere else not called Wimbledon.