Karolina Pliskova is really, really good at playing tennis. She is also crafting one of the more enigmatic careers in 21st-century tennis.
On the ATP Tour, it is all so clear-cut and dramatic: You have the Big 3, then the dashing Dominic Thiem trying to invade the castle, and the NextGen’s handsome, telegenic stars trying to figure things out.
The WTA landscape is so much more complicated — I hasten to repeat that this is hardly a bad thing, given the WTA’s rich storehouse of quality depth, but complexity is the name of the game on the WTA Tour, and Pliskova is its most complicated player.
There is no one in the WTA top 10 — with the possible exception of Elina Svitolina — who is more of a puzzle and a set of walking contradictions than Pliskova.
Consider what she brings to the table as 2019 Roland Garros begins:
Pliskova is a great battler, but not yet a major champion. Pliskova’s best major tournaments have involved steely and inspired responses to pressure. She saved match point at the 2016 U.S. Open against Venus Williams to make her way to the final, which is still her only major final to date. She won a series of tough three-setters to make the 2017 Roland Garros semifinals. She overcame multiple match points to beat another member of the Williams family, Serena, in the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals en route to the semis.
Yet, there has always been someone to stop her on the path to a major trophy: Angelique Kerber at the 2016 U.S. Open, Simona Halep at Roland Garros in 2017, and Naomi Osaka earlier this year in Melbourne. Those three players have all won career-validating major titles, crossing the threshold and leaving the liminal space Pliskova still inhabits.
Svitolina, with her collection of Premier 5 titles but not even a single major semifinal, owns a large set of contradictions in her own right, but as Roland Garros arrives, Svitolina is not 100-percent healthy, making her less of a focal point within the workings of the 2019 season. Pliskova is the queen of contradictions, which exist far beyond what has been mentioned above:
Pliskova is blessed with a huge serve, but is and has been more successful on clay than grass. She did finally get to Manic Monday after years of being unable to do so, but she is still waiting for her first deep run at the Big W. Low slices on grass force her to bend for shots. Her loss to Magdalena Rybarikova a few years ago illustrated her problem on grass. Yet, her big game should still translate to a good run at SW19 once in a while, much as John Isner FINALLY did something on the lawns of Wimbledon last year. Yet, Pliskova simply hasn’t been able to get on a roll in Wimbledon Village, not even once. It is a mystery for this tennis puzzle from the Czech Republic.
At this Roland Garros tournament, Pliskova is the No. 2 seed, and given Osaka’s struggles on clay, one might think she is the woman to beat in Paris. Yet, that is not the case: Pliskova is not the top favorite or the best clay-court player at Roland Garros. Kiki Bertens and Simona Halep will fight for that distinction in the coming fortnight.
Pliskova is facing the urgency of pursuing a first major, yet she is not the WTA player who shoulders the most pressure of any player at Roland Garros this year — Kiki Bertens is that player.
Karolina Pliskova, for all sorts of reasons, lives an in-between existence. That reality — dwelling in liminal space — is very much on display at Roland Garros in 2019.
We will see if Pliskova, currently standing at the threshold, can cross it once and for all.