With half the top eight women’s singles seeds out of the main draw, speculation was rampant that Wednesday’s match between former number one players Karolina Pliskova, seeded seventh, and Victoria Azarenka, ranked number 87, would predictably end the same way.
Not even close.
Pliskova needed only one break of serve per set in her 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Azarenka to advance to the third round for the first time in her seven appearances at Wimbledon.
“I think it was pretty solid,” the Czech native told the BBC immediately after her victory. “Very solid on my serve, first time in third round.”
Pliskova’s victory could signal an end to the purging of seeds that escalated to 21 — 11 women and 10 men — after the first round came to a close Tuesday. According to Wimbledon, the number is a record at this tournament.
Happy not to be added to that dismal stat, Pliskova’s flat and speedy groundstrokes plus her booming serve prevented Azarenka from showcasing her movement, which could have disrupted her six-foot-one opponent.
“The weight of shots from Pliskova has been hard for Azarenka to handle,” Martina Navratilova said as she called the match on television.
The two women painted a portrait of contrasts — in game style, in attitude, in outward appearance.
Pliskova happily slapped away at her groundstrokes, giving them little in the way of topspin while remaining stone-faced. She seemed to prefer shorter points in which movement didn’t come into play. Her aggression emerged in her opponent’s first service game of the match, when Azarenka had to fight off three break points.
Azarenka, unlike the stoic Pliskova, is an open window into her own soul. She pumps herself up just like Rafael Nadal. Every point is the point that will spur a streak of momentum she could surely ride to a victorious end.
“Mentally, she is very engaged,” Mary Jo Fernandez said about Azarenka on ESPN.
However, her ritualized “let’s go” and the slaps to her thighs just couldn’t find a groove Wednesday. She won the toss and chose to receive, knowing that her return of serve is one the best in the game. She won more points off her second serve than her first, a reversal of the norm. Yet the scoreline was forever in Pliskova’s favor, reaching deuce only twice on Pliskova’s serve in the two sets.
“If she keeps playing like this she’s a contender [for the title], no doubt about it,” Navratilova said of Pliskova.
“The last few years I’ve been waiting for a good time [to advance], but maybe this time,” Pliskova said to the BBC.
Both Azarenka and Pliskova are rhythm players. It’s a hard ask on grass where inconsistencies already are evident. But off court, Azarenka’s rhythm is nothing but a series of scenes that demand consistency: a two-time Wimbledon semifinalist (2011, 2015) striving to get her game back to the top and a mother with a young son, Leo.
“I think the dynamic and thing about being pregnant coming back is such a powerful thing now,” Azarenka told the press yesterday, as Wimbledon reported. “I think it’s an advantage, in a way. You’re able to kind of do a tick. I am a mom now, so I can continue to do more of what I love to do.”
But like another mother, Serena Williams, Azarenka finds her toughest challenge is being away from her son.
“I think the tougher balance is, for me, to be able to spend time away from my son and be okay with taking time for myself,” she began. “I really want to spend every second with him. I feel guilty if I take fifteen minutes to stretch. So that’s the balance I think is the tough one.”
Azarenka returned to Grand Slam competition from maternity leave at Wimbledon last year. She seems levelheaded about her route to a rise in the ranks.
“Every match is going to be a challenge,” she said. “It’s going to be a battle. Doesn’t matter who it is. I can play against top layers. Obviously I’ve done that before. For me it’s important to see where my game is at. It’s not going to be an easy road. There is never an easy road back to the top. I’m ready for that.”
Azarenka’s 12 appearances at the All England Club plus her results, two quarterfinals and two semifinals, could — and arguably should — have put her in the mix for a seeding both last year and this year. Yet Serena won that decision when she was seeded number 25 by the tournament’s committee. (She was not given a seed at the French Open, which became a controversial decision and probably influenced Wimbledon to show flexibility with its traditional seeding protocol.)
“I didn’t get it last year. She got it this year,” Azarenka said, simply.
Creating policy that paves the way for new lifestyles on tour will take time. In recent player council meetings concrete strides have been made that should change the direction of how players — both male and female — are viewed and served at tournaments. These changes are particularly important as players extend their careers past 30.
“The main thing is that it has to be for everyone,” Azarenka said. “The rules have to be applied for everyone. So that is one thing that we haven’t come to the conclusion yet, but it’s coming.”
The entire seeding system will be changed in 2019. Only 16 players will be seeded among 128 in the main draws, rather than 32. The logic? To present more competitive matches early in a tournament and not wait until the second week for top names to clash. Ironically, Wimbledon seems to be previewing that very system now, given the plethora of seeds who have been scattered thus far.
Karolina Pliskova is not one of them. This time, the third round of Wimbledon was not just a goal to hold in mind, but an aspiration finally realized.