That might seem like an incendiary story title, so let’s be clear: The charity Karolina Pliskova accepted was not from Serena Williams. It was from an ankle injury.
Yes, Serena had four match points. Yes, if she had just won one of them, she would have claimed Wednesday’s stunning Australian Open quarterfinal. Yet, let’s not think this was primarily a failure of Serena.
This was a product of an injury which, in the heat of the moment, an athlete could not adjust to. It might not have been a debilitating injury, but it did enough to rob an iconic athlete of the mind-body dualism needed to play at a reasonably competent level.
Put differently: If there’s no ankle injury, does this match end with Pliskova winning six games in a row to take the match, 7-5 in the third? Does this match involve Pliskova getting to 5-5 in the third?
This match sucked — not in the sense that Serena lost or that Pliskova won, but because tennis was not the main reason one player lost or won.
I write about the winners and losers based on what happens. The satisfying outcome is not that Player A beats Player B, and that I revel in A’s victory or B’s defeat. The satisfaction comes from knowing that tennis acumen — specific prowess in playing tennis and competing under pressure — decided the battle.
This match was not such an instance.
The unsatisfying truth about this match is that Serena Williams did the problem-solving. Serena made the comeback. Pliskova faltered after having a set-and-break lead. A loss was going to be painful for Pliskova, but it would have occurred “cleanly,” in the sense that she had her chance and lost it. A win was going to be similarly clean for Serena because she overcame struggles and flourished to build a 5-1 lead in the third set.
And then… the world turned upside-down.
Injuries are part of sports, but as I said in the piece linked to above, injuries remove actual sports-based quality from the forefront of the conversation. I don’t learn much from competitions fundamentally decided by injuries. That’s the way sports have been. That’s the way they are now. That’s the way they will continue to be.
Injuries don’t tell us that a coach made the difference for Pliskova. Had Kaja won this match in straight sets, I would have been able to say that. Under THESE circumstances, I can’t.
Injuries don’t tell us that a great champion played inadequate tennis. Had Serena lost in straights without breaking back in the second set, I would be saying that right now… but under THESE circumstances, I can’t write that and present it to you, a reader, as a legitimate interpretation of what you and I just saw in Melbourne.
Injuries decide sporting events all the time… by removing measurements of quality from the equation. We all know this player is better than that one if both are healthy. We know this team is better than that team when both are healthy.
When one side loses health, it’s not about sports. It’s about health. It’s not about technique. It’s about health. It’s not about tactics or patterns or game plans. It’s about health. So it goes. So it sometimes is. We all have to live with that.
That’s why this match sucked — Pliskova winning isn’t the flaw in the outcome. The injury to Serena is the flaw.
Now that I have dealt with the matter, however, Pliskova DOES merit a considerable word or two of praise, and that’s where the presence of charity comes in.
I used to work at a soup kitchen and at an eviction-prevention agency, and at a nonprofit health care organization. I have visited the homes of people who needed help with rent, food, and utility bills. I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of people in need. I have often encountered people who were depressed because they had to ask for charity.
I told them — and I meant it whenever I said it — that it’s not weakness to ask for charity. Life is cruel and unfair. We all need a little help sometimes. Just make use of the help you get.
Karolina Pliskova made use of the help she received.
She could have shut down at 5-1, 40-30, on Serena’s serve. She could have lacked focus on each of the four match points she played. She could have buckled at 4-5, 15-40 on her serve, just when it seemed that she had a real chance to complete her comeback.
She steeled herself.
Was she lucky as heck? Of course she was… but she wasn’t afraid to take this gift from the sports gods. She was willing to accept it and step into the semifinals against Naomi Osaka.
We have seen players face injured opponents in big matches over the years, and still fail to take the charity given to them. Recall Daniela Hantuchova failing to beat a clearly injured Serena at Wimbledon in 2007. Beating physically compromised opponents isn’t an automatic occurrence — it happens most of the time, but it isn’t a slam-dunk.
Pliskova — four times within a point of losing — did not let this opportunity slip away. Again: Was she fortunate as hell? Yes — no one is litigating or disputing that point. The bottom line for her: She could be in the locker room cursing herself for not taking this chance, regardless of what happened to Serena.
Instead, she is preparing for Osaka in the semis, with the chance of a lifetime in front of her, as she seeks her first major title and could VERY possibly face Petra Kvitova in an all-Czech final.
We all need help at times. We are human beings, not gods. Take what you’re given. Make full use of good fortune when it comes along. Spread the good fortune to others if you can. Adults act like this.
Consider Karolina Pliskova a grownup at the 2019 Australian Open.