The WTA is way too unpredictable to make assumptions these days. The idea that Karolina Pliskova has a garden stroll to the Wimbledon final in the bottom half of the draw is foolish on its face.
Yet, having acknowledged that, it also seems unwise to think that Pliskova’s third-round win over Hsieh Su-Wei on Friday is little more than survival, and that it proves little about her story at Wimbledon.
No, this was not just another third-round match. This was not an occasion which merited a cold shrug.
This looked like a formidable tennis player overcoming a hurdle and taking an important forward step in her evolution.
A year ago, Karolina Pliskova FINALLY made the third round of Wimbledon, a very modest achievement yet something she had to do to get this mental block out of her head. Pliskova, as her fans know, is not a bad grass-court player. She has been a bad WIMBLEDON player, however. She had managed the warm-up events quite well in recent years, however.
Get this: Pliskova has made the Eastbourne (WTA Premier) final in three of the past four years, winning twice. She has made finals in Nottingham, Birmingham, and Eastbourne. She can play on lawns. Wimbledon, however, has vexed her.
Back to 2018: Pliskova did finally make the third round. She played poorly and was a set and a break down to Mihaela Buzarnescu. She crossed the third-round goal off her to-do list, but not convincingly. Buzarnescu got very tight when trying to close down the match, and Pliskova was able to rally for a victory which sent her to Manic Monday for the first time. Pliskova, however, was thoroughly outplayed by Kiki Bertens. Her win over Buzarnescu never had the feel of a career turnaround.
This match against Hsieh, one year later, has the feel of something significant.
Let us first realize that Pliskova has won warm-up events before each of the three majors this year: Brisbane before the Australian Open, Rome before the French Open, and Eastbourne before Wimbledon. Pliskova made a Premier Mandatory final for the first time in Miami. She played a very high-level semifinal in the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka was simply exceptional in big moments.
Pliskova, as I have written before, keeps knocking on the door at important tournaments. On a WTA Tour marked by the inability of players to carry good form and/or results from one tournament to the next, Pliskova — though not lifting any huge trophies — has been much better than most of her peers at making quarterfinals and semifinals with some degree of regularity.
Pliskova has therefore occupied a very unusual position on tour: being steadier than many of her peers but living in the shadows because of the lack of a crowning big-stage moment. She is the best player on the current tour who has never won a major title.
Why, then, does this match against Hsieh feel so different from last year’s third-round win over Buzarnescu?
A few reasons stand out:
A) Hsieh did not give this match away, unlike Buzarnescu a year ago. Pliskova took it from her.
Hsieh was her magical, typical self late in the second set, waving her magic wand and dropping winners all over the court in her signature Wei. She flummoxed Pliskova in much the same style that Magdalena Rybarikova did in 2017, with the assortment of speeds and a plan designed to make Pliskova bend more than run.
This match became very complicated not because Pliskova faltered, but because Hsieh — who very nearly stopped Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open earlier this year — found her best form.
Pliskova broke for an early lead in the third set but fell behind 15-40 at 2-1. Would Pliskova — who has run out of steam in third sets of important major tournament matches in the past — allow the enormity of the occasion to get to her again, or would she display the inner steel which has marked her improvement in the past three years, ever since her Cincinnati-U.S. Open run in which the light first came on for her?
Pliskova played four exceptional points, punctuated by the best one of the four, a stab volley winner, to hold for 3-1.
She was never again tested on serve. She took hold of a situation and didn’t let go.
This is something she has done plenty of times in the past three years, but never at Wimbledon — never on this scale, never with this kind of opportunity in front of her.
Pliskova played Eastbourne last week, a perfectly reasonable decision given that she lost very early in Birmingham the week before and did not have to worry about overplaying as she entered Wimbledon. Nevertheless, the reality of having played Eastbourne meant that this first week figured to be challenging. The fact that she played a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule instead of Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday made the turnaround even shorter.
This win gives Pliskova the ability to get not one day off, but TWO, before Manic Monday. She can recharge her batteries and look ahead to a draw in which she plays Karolina Muchova in the fourth round and either Elina Svitolina or the Danielle Collins-Petra Martic winner in the quarterfinals.
No, we don’t have to assume that Karolina Pliskova has an easy stroll into the semis. Those are all good players in front of her. Yet, those are all players she will be favored against, and she can now get some added rest before playing them.
Karolina Pliskova has shown she can play on grass. Friday against Hsieh Su-Wei, it felt that for the first time, Pliskova showed she could play at Wimbledon.
If she can play well next week, her career — and how it is perceived — will change in all the ways she has hoped and dreamed about. Tennis will have a magical story to tell at the All England Club.