Serena Williams had made each of the first three major finals of 2016 at the age of 34, a remarkable achievement in its own right. She entered the 2016 U.S. Open semifinals having won a heavyweight-level quarterfinal against Simona Halep, a match worthy of a final. Serena was Serena, doing her normal thing. In the semifinals, she played an opponent who was making her first appearance in a major semifinal, someone who — before her Cincinnati championship weeks earlier that summer — had not done anything of note on the WTA Tour. Karolina Pliskova entered August of 2016 as a woman in search of a lightbulb, in pursuit of an inner epiphany which would unlock her talents and enable her big game to shine through.
Pliskova’s search is not unique in tennis. So many players can hit a ball really hard and show, in short but devastating sequences, a level of play which can attain considerable riches in the sport. The secret is to be able to stretch those short sequences into longer ones, and to then establish a high floor of play, where one’s worst tennis is never particularly bad, and can carry a player through rough patches against formidable opposition. These and other related tasks form the challenge of the professional tennis player. This what players in the locker room all seek and crave. These are not rare or isolated instances.
Pliskova was two months into the first great epiphanic part of her career. The self-discovery of her game was very fresh. Winning Cincinnati was her first taste of an elite-level accomplishment, and her match-point save in the fourth round of the 2016 U.S. Open against Venus Williams was her first particularly huge match victory at a major tournament. Yet, those triumphs, as special as they were, did not represent accomplishments as big as defeated Serena Williams in a major semifinal.
Serena was supposed to be different. Serena was supposed to represent an obstacle which was harder to conquer by many orders of magnitude. Serena was supposed to be the stop sign on Pliskova’s road to the top.
It could not have been any different.
With glacial calm and steely focus, Pliskova — riding her hammer of a serve — out-Serena’d Serena. She took the first-strike style of play Serena has used against so many so well (including in Serena’s latest win, her Sunday victory over Kaia Kanepi in the 2018 U.S. Open fourth round) and shoved it back in her opponent’s face.
You never would have known this was Pliskova’s first taste of the major semifinal spotlight. You never would have been able to tell that Pliskova was the newcomer and Serena the 22-time major champion (23 after her win at the 2017 Australian Open). Serena and Angelique Kerber were supposed to meet in a third major final in 2016, but Pliskova busted up that scenario with the best performance of her career. Everything had begun to fall in place for Pliskova, and what’s more is that she built on that performance over the next several months, making a lot of semifinals at important tournaments, including Roland Garros in 2017, and claiming the World No. 1 ranking shortly thereafter. Pliskova was in the process of adding more positive moments and creating the kind of muscle memory every athlete dreams about. Her 2016 U.S. Open and hardcourt summer did not seem like aberrations. Her career was being fortified, brick by brick. This was how a difficult journey turns into a success story.
The magic stopped.
Pliskova has not plummeted — that’s a far too severe characterization — and compared to most of the WTA Tour, she is still well ahead of most peers. Moreover, she finally made the second week of Wimbledon for the first time earlier this summer. She is still a quarterfinal-level player at major tournaments. That’s very good, and not to be ignored as a meaningful achievement.
Yet, in June of 2017, Pliskova was creating a slow but steady upward trajectory. In 2018, the upward movement has been stopped. A larger sense of progress has been thwarted. Pliskova still wins a number of matches which the pre-Cincinnati version in 2016 would not have won. An example was her third-round win at this U.S. Open over Sofia Kenin. Another example was her third-round Wimbledon win over Mihaela Buzarnescu. The 2015 version of Pliskova would have lost those matches. This player is better… but the ceiling has not been raised. It has been lowered.
Pliskova is still looking for another major semifinal since her 2017 Roland Garros run to the last four. She has made a number of quarterfinals, but has not been able to cross the threshold again. Kiki Bertens beat her at Wimbledon and again in Montreal, and when Bertens won Cincinnati in 2018 — akin to Pliskova winning Cincy in 2016 — it was reasonable to think that Bertens would become the new Pliskova at this U.S. Open.
Yet, Bertens lost in the third round (to Pliskova’s fellow Czech, Marketa Vondrousova), and Pliskova is back in the quarters in New York (for the third straight year) after beating Ashleigh Barty in the fourth round on Sunday.
Guess whom Pliskova plays on Tuesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium? Of course.
Serena. The opponent Pliskova was able to take down in a clinical manner two years ago in the big city. Pliskova and Serena return to the scene, with Serena trying to write a different story compared to 2016… and Pliskova trying to re-create the magic which has been missing for the last 15 months.
Can lightning strike in the same place twice? Pliskova certainly hopes it will… but Serena will try to shake down the thunder and make sure that Pliskova’s career doesn’t find a second awakening in New York.