Jane Voigt — Tennis With An Accent
Life on Earth has not been normal over the last 16 months, especially for tennis. Just think … Wimbledon shut its gates last year due to Covid-19, halting the oldest and most prestigious Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 1945 when a world war raged. Its decision to open this year had faced obstacles with limited attendance at first plus stars such as Rafael Nadal missing. Tuesday, though, welcomed back normalcy, on a day traditionally set aside for the ladies’ quarterfinals.
Karolina Pliskova, in her ninth main draw appearance at Wimbledon; Angelique Kerber, the 2018 Wimbledon champion; and Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 Roland Garros champion, defeated their opponents – Viktorija Golubic, Karolina Muchova and Ajla Tomljanovic, respectively – for places in the semifinals.
For Pliskova, it is her first foray into the semifinals at Wimbledon even though she recorded two other major semifinal berths in previous years (2017 Roland Garros, 2019 Australian Open) plus a runner-up trophy at the U.S. Open in 2016.
For Kerber, this semifinal appearance is a welcome breath of fresh air. It is a career-reviving moment for a 33-year-old woman who has struggled with her game for two years. Only when returning to grass (which she was unable to play on in 2020) did she experience a surge of competence and reap the rewards of lawn tennis. She thrived in the lead-up event that preceded Wimbledon. She won Bad Homburg, an inaugural grass event in Germany, her native country, and has steadily increased her efficiency and confidence at SW19. She was very much in form in Tuesday’s quarterfinal win over Muchova.
For Ashleigh Barty, let’s put this run in her own words:
“This is my dream and I’m extremely grateful that I’m able to work really hard for it,” she told fans minutes after her 6-1, 6-3 win over countrywoman Ajla Tomljanovic.
Barty is looking forward to her semifinal opponent, Kerber.
“It’s the ultimate test. I love playing Angie. She’s an ultimate competitor. I hope I can play a good match.”
These three victories upset the predominant Wimbledon storyline of firsts, the most amazing being the 10 players who battled their way to the round of 16 though previously having never stepped foot on these hallowed courts in a main draw: wild card Emma Raducanu, ranked 338 (debut); Barbora Krejcikova, the reigning Roland Garros champion (debut); wild card Ludmilla Samsonova (debut); Iga Swiatek, Roland Garros 2020 champion (0-1); Paula Badosa (0-1); Lorenzo Sonego (0-2); and sensations Sebastian Korda (debut), Ilya Ivashka (debut), and Cristian Garin (0-3). Only in a year like this at Wimbledon could these names have risen to new heights from a year darkened by forced closures and a lack of grass-court matches.
That Pliskova, Kerber and Barty are through to the semifinals settles fans, because we recognize their names and have known them for years. They seem to have brought some normalcy to tennis and to our expectations that have been battered for too long. These women have trudged the tour road for a decade and more, winding their ways through good times and bad, only to surface now for their chance to win Wimbledon, a most coveted prize for all players.
The last piece of the semifinal puzzle, Aryna Sabalenka, will face Pliskova on Thursday. Although not as well known to the greater tennis-viewing population, Sabalenka (No. 2) is right up there when comparing who has amassed the most titles of the eight quarterfinalists: Pliskova 16; Kerber 13; Barty 11; and Sabalenka 10.
Angelique Kerber, with three major trophies in her collection – the Australian Open (2016), Wimbledon (2018), and U.S. Open (2016 – is not unfamiliar with this stage of the tournament. Yet she surprised fans Tuesday when she characterized her match against Muchova as “tight.” The scoreline didn’t portray a tight match – Kerber won 6-2, 6-3 – in an hour and a quarter, under the roof of Court 1, while thunderous rain pounded down.
Muchova, this year’s Australian Open semifinalist, scripted an error-strewn match that crippled any chance to right her ship while Kerber remained steadfast. She seemed to be planning shots before they materialized, much as a billiards player lines up consecutive strikes. That’s a fascinating mindset and one that’s almost impossible for an opponent to overcome, because knowingly or not, those opponents are caught in the vision as unsuspecting accomplices, following along dutifully but without their consent. Perhaps, then, Angelique Kerber characterized the match as tight because her journey to this spot, one she definitely recognizes, is actually brand new to her this week.
“I really enjoy every minute here,” Kerber told a packed court and Wimbledon. “It was a tight match. She plays really well, especially on grass. I’m so happy to be in the semis here again. The grass is why I’m playing so much better. I was so excited to come back on this surface after last year’s [Covid] break. I’m so happy to play my tennis again with my heart. It’s a magic place.”
In fact, Wimbledon opened up its seating capacity to 100% at the start of the quarterfinals, a first for a major tennis tournament since the pandemic has begun to wane.
Karolina Pliskova (No. 13), rewired and re-energized with snappy footwork and determination, turned around a nightmare year this fortnight, when Wimbledon has opened its arms to a world eager to witness top tennis athletes compete on grass.
“It means a lot, of course,” Pliskova told the press afterward, “especially having not too many good weeks before Wimbledon. It feels like a dream. It was the last Grand Slam where I [was] missing the semifinals, so now I have all of them.”
Big serves are always a top-shelf asset on the lawns of Wimbledon or any other grass tournament. Barty has connected on 38 aces this tournament. Pliskova tops the charts, though, with 40, according to Wimbledon’s statistics. Next is Sabalenka with 34; trailing at number 20 is Kerber with 11 aces. (Don’t forget Angie thinks at least three strikes of the ball ahead of her opponents, so a lackluster ace count doesn’t mean that much.)
Bottom line … the more usual suspects have risen to the top of this draw and, to some extent, restored a normal atmosphere to a game that has suffered long enough. Missing here, of course, is Serena Williams, who fell on court in her opening match. She once again attempted to record her 24th major title. Her name transcends the sport and has risen to international attention on all fronts. She will be welcomed in New York to continue her journey to 24.
Meanwhile, Angelique Kerber is searching for a fourth major championship, Ash Barty her second. Karolina Pliskova (like Sabalenka) is looking for her first.
Kerber, Barty, Pliskova. They have been around the block before. They have become familiar parts of the tennis landscape. As Wimbledon, soaked in tradition, has returned to the world in 2021 after a pandemic cancellation the year before, it seems somehow fitting that familiar names will compete for the women’s singles championship at the historic All-England Club.