As the clock struck 12am on the first Monday of Wimbledon, one of the few remaining pillars of stability in women’s tennis crumbled. Ever since the summer of Karolina Pliskova’s dreams in 2016, when she breezed to the US Open final immediately after winning in Cincinnati, she had been a permanent, consistent fixture in the top 10.
But for so much of this season, Pliskova had been a painful sight. After ample lethargic performances, early losses, four consecutive defeats to the same lower-ranked player, Jessica Pegula, and even a double bagel from Iga Swiatek in the final of Rome, Pliskova dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in nearly five years.
What could have been the beginning of an even deeper spiral and, perhaps, questions about the effectiveness of her new coaching partnership this week with Sascha Bajin, has instead lasted only two weeks. She has immediately bounced back to reach her first Wimbledon final, where she will face the world No 1, Ashleigh Barty. Regardless of how she fares, she will return to the top 10 next week.
Pliskova’s revival has been helped by a kind draw having faced no opponent ranked inside the top 45 en route to the semi-final. But the manner in which she bulldozed all opposition without the loss of a set has been deeply impressive and it has gradually allowed her to rebuild confidence. Once she faced a top-level opponent, Aryna Sabalenka, she soared with a quality performance that ended in two faultless sets against an opponent who struck 18 aces.
She means many different things to different people in tennis. For those who appreciate Pliskova, she is a player who has endeavoured to improve her lack of athleticism, evolving from a largely immobile athlete who struggled even to bend her knees to someone capable of scrambling in defence and seizing on drop shots. Aside from her famed serve, the centrepiece of her game responsible for 14 aces against Sabalenka, she is blessed with smooth technique, timing, underrated hand skills and measured aggression.
To those who aren’t enamoured with her output, her eternally composed on-court demeanour and lack of dynamism in her game are off-putting, and throughout this period, many have let her know: “Not that I would really read, like, all the messages and all the comments, but sometimes you just see something or like some articles,” said Pliskova this week. “I think they can be quite brutal. I was five years in top 10. Then one week I’m not in top 10, and it’s like huge drama, especially in my country. I think these things, they just don’t help.”
Few journeys to a Wimbledon final have been as arduous as Pliskova’s. At 28 and in her 10th appearance at Wimbledon, this is the first time she has passed the fourth round and the journey itself is unique in all of its complications. She has always been a quality grass-court player, winning three titles on the surface and reaching two further finals, but Wimbledon was simultaneously her bogey tournament. Between 2013 and 2017 she lost in the second round for five consecutive years. Two fourth-round finishes followed before this year.
Now she will stand across the net from Barty, who is one round away from completing her ultimate dream. Speaking before the final, the Australian’s coach, Craig Tyzzer, underlined her complicated path since her retirement due to injury at the French Open. “It started a bit scratchy,” he said. “Felt she played well in the first match. Didn’t play so great in the second match. Played better in the third. It sort of got better each time. Sometimes it’s hard to pick. I felt like the French was going to be a blinder for her and it ended up not working out at all. We didn’t know what to expect coming in here. It’s been an amazing journey so far.”
As both players search for their first Wimbledon title, Barty leads the head to head 5-2 and will hold the clear match-up advantage on the surface. Barty is also one of the best servers in the game and is capable of matching Pliskova’s rate of holding serve. But she also shares qualities with Pliskova’s previous conquerors at Wimbledon, Karolina Muchova and Magdalena Rybarikova, who disrupted Pliskova with wicked slices that caused the Czech player deep discomfort on low-bouncing grass. Nobody does any of that better than Barty, which Pliskova summed up well: “She makes you feel a bit ugly with the game she’s playing.”