Wait a minute, you might be saying. Isn’t the turn of phrase supposed to be “absence makes the heart grow FONDER,” not bigger?
It can be both!
Karolina Pliskova and Ashleigh Barty have certainly demonstrated their fondness for Wimbledon, making their way to Saturday’s women’s singles final with semifinal victories on Thursday at the All-England Club. Barty certainly loves to play on grass. Her old-school Australian game is a perfect fit for the lawns of Centre Court. Pliskova’s fondness for Wimbledon has — in the past — been manifested in the form of failure, not success. The Czech veteran has played with the burden of wanting something too much. That’s a real thing in sports. Players strain so hard to attain what they dearly want. The art of competition involves a marriage of hunger with enough relaxation to perform (and run) fluidly in the face of pressure. Pliskova has regularly possessed the desire, but found fluidity and rhythm elusive.
At this Wimbledon, Pliskova and Barty have — in their own ways — reassembled their games to bring out their very best. They had to beat six opponents to get here, but in many ways, they had to beat a seventh opponent as well: their own selves.
For Barty, this tournament presented a largely physical challenge. Barty the competitor is elite in the women’s game. No player more regularly solves problems across all surfaces than she does. In the first five rounds of Wimbledon, Barty was dragged into a third set here (by Carla Suarez Navarro) and a 2-4, break-point-down trouble spot there (versus Barbora Krejcikova in the fourth round). Fighting her game — and often her serve (25 percent first serves in set one of the quarterfinals versus Ajla Tomljanovic) — Barty didn’t look the part of a World No. 1 player.
This was to be expected, given that she hadn’t played matches in the four weeks preceding Wimbledon. Her body was devoured by the clay season. She picked up one injury which caused her to retire versus Coco Gauff in the Rome quarterfinals. She picked up a separate injury which led her to retire against Magda Linette in the second round of Roland Garros. Barty had to rest during the grass warm-up season. She really didn’t have much of a choice.
She couldn’t play a warm-up grass event, unlike the woman she faced on Thursday, 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber. The German used a warm-up event to find a groove on grass, which she carried into the semifinals. Kerber threw down a very high standard of play at this tournament, and she displayed that elite level of performance to grab a 5-2 lead in the second set. Barty faced the possibility of a third set on Centre Court versus an opponent who had played in multiple Wimbledon finals and felt very much at home on that patch of real estate.
Barty’s competitive excellence carried her through the first five rounds of this Wimbledon. Beating Angie Kerber on Centre Court was going to require Barty to not only compete like a World No. 1, but PLAY like a World No. 1.
Warm-ups were over. Preliminaries had ended. The moment demanded that Barty — after a month of rest and regrouping — reclaim her best tennis.
Does winning 11 straight points, five of six games, and the first six points of the second-set tiebreaker count as reclaiming one’s best tennis? Seems like it.
Barty couldn’t rush or force her game in her patient return to form after a one-month layoff. She had to bide her time and trust that she could survive in Week 1, then pounce in Week 2. Her ability to deliver the goods tells us, in a new way, what kind of athlete she is.
Pliskova’s challenge was less a physical one and more a mental one. At 29, she has still not chased down a first major. She played great at this tournament, but lost a first set to Aryna Sabalenka in which she served at 75 percent, generated eight break points to only one for her opponent, and was generally more consistent from the backcourt. She came undone in a brief series of points at 5-6.
She could have, in that moment, felt that a major title was just not meant to be. She could have lamented her fate, could have drowned in frustration, could have let this occasion slip away…
or she could have fought back and insisted that this opportunity was not going to die on her own account.
Maybe Sabalenka would be good enough and strong enough to beat her and finish the job, but Karolina Pliskova was going to play her game no matter how annoying that first set was. She was going to make Sabalenka earn this win.
Pliskova — with the steely resolve we haven’t seen from her in some time — retained her consistency and held the upper hand throughout the final two sets. She secured early breaks in the final two stanzas and held them to the end. What a huge display of heavy lifting it was — lifting in the mind, more than with her shoulders — to withstand not just Sabalenka, but the very weighty moment and all the pressure it contained.
Barty overcame her physical challenge. Pliskova overcame a profound mental challenge.
Now, one of them will be a first-time Wimbledon champion.
Their absence from Wimbledon last year, and from this big stage throughout their careers, made their hearts grow bigger this summer at SW19.