Karolina Pliskova is known for speaking blunt truths, a generally admirable quality for an athlete to have. Yes, speaking blunt truths can sometimes get an athlete into trouble — if not in the traditional sense of “trouble,” certainly in relationship to certain fan bases.
Pliskova has not paid proper respect to Serena Williams. That gave Serena fans (justified) reason for crowing after a decisive Serena smackdown of Pliskova in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Yet, much as there are limits to how blunt an athlete should be in speaking her truth, there are also limits to how much fans should hold it against a player when she is honest.
Sportswriters such as myself have to acknowledge this tension all the time.
We (most of us, at least) CLAIM to want candor from athletes. We CLAIM to want personality and individuality from competitors to spice up the tour and lend honesty to what is said and felt in the press room, the locker room, and on court. Yet, when an athlete says something abrasive or controversial, the larger media ecosystem roars into overdrive with clickbait stories about how incendiary a quote was, or something to that effect.
The athlete is therefore damned if she offers honest quotes, and damned if she speaks in stock, boilerplate language. The media’s “build up then tear down” tendency is exactly why so many athletes are unwilling to speak boldly. Better to not rock the boat and stay out of the soap operas in the press than to say what you REALLY think and feel.
Pliskova is a player who says what she thinks. The abrasiveness will understandably rub some people the wrong way, but let’s be fair here: Honesty in athletes is supposed to be a feature, not a bug. The individuality of competitors should generally be welcomed — the more it is authentically expressed, the better (within reasonable limits, of course).
Pliskova shouldn’t be viewed negatively — not in a larger context removed from specific matches or isolated instances of smack talk with specific opponents.
What can be said about the Czech, however, after Saturday’s second WTA Finals semifinal match, is that if she is going to speak blunt truths about others, she also has to face blunt truths herself.
Right now, the blunt truth about Karolina Pliskova — not a terrible truth, but not an encouraging one — is that she has not improved in her ability to handle big-stage moments.
Eight games in a row, two points for 3-0 in the second set. An opponent who plainly acknowledged that nothing was going right for her.
Pliskova had Sloane Stephens on the ropes in Singapore. This was about to become her biggest final since the 2016 U.S. Open against Angelique Kerber.
Pliskova, to her great credit, has carved out a very respectable place on the WTA Tour as a quarterfinal-level player in important tournaments. That’s how a player becomes a fixture in the top 10, wins a pile of money, and achieves a substantial measure of professional success when viewed solely through the prism of relevance in her craft.
Pliskova is regularly in the mix when a tournament hits the round of 16 and the round of eight. Not a large number of her peers can say that. Pliskova’s late-2016 rise has in many ways been reinforced by what she has done since. She did not fall off the map. She did not meaningfully regress. (You could argue that she has regressed, but if she has, the regression hasn’t been dramatic. It is, if anything, slight.)
However: Even if you think Pliskova hasn’t regressed, she hasn’t taken the next step forward. Quarterfinals and semifinals sit one step below the final, and this match — in Singapore against Stephens — marked a chance for Pliskova to show that she could go the distance at an important tournament. The 2016 U.S. Open was the last high-end tournament — major, Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, or year-end championship — in which Pliskova made the final.
The table was set. Stephens was unexpectedly off her game. Pliskova wasn’t even winning tons of points with aces. Heck, she didn’t hit ANY ACES AT ALL… and STILL led 8-0 in games, with two points for 9-0.
Stephens didn’t even win a majority of her first-serve points in this match, at 48 percent. That included the runaway third set.
Pliskova — if she is being as honest with herself as she is with others — knows she should have closed out that match. She knows she NEEDED to close out that match.
Instead of being back in a main-event final, she is left to wonder why late-stage matches against quality opponents at important tournaments keep slipping through her fingers.
Pliskova made the WTA Finals semifinals a year ago, had set points in set one against Caroline Wozniacki… and couldn’t close the sale then, either. A year later, she isn’t a worse player than in October of 2017, but can she or anyone else say she is better?
That is the blunt truth Pliskova must acknowledge — and work to improve — in 2019.