Karolina Pliskova had just beaten former world No. 1 Carolina Wozniacki in straight sets in Doha to win her second title of 2017. The Czech had battled a stubbornly steady opponent, an equally steady breeze that turned every shot into a knuckleball and her own dips in play to record a straight-set victory and improve her season record to a stellar 15-1.
Yet the reporters in her post-match press conference didn’t want to talk about any of that. They were already looking ahead.
No sooner had Pliskova sat down than she received this blunt query:
“Do you think about No. 1?”
Pliskova was just as blunt in return: “No,” she said.
“Not yet?” the reporter persisted.
“Not yet. I have other goals than being No. 1 right now.”
Asked what those goals were, Pliskova didn’t hesitate to name the one at the top of her list. And she didn’t hesitate to aim high.
“It’s to win a Grand Slam,” she said. “I was in a final, so the next step would be to win it.”
Pliskova even went so far as to speculate about where she would have the best chance—“obviously, with my game, I think it would be [on a] hard court or Wimbledon”—and to give herself a time frame.
“I would love to do it this year,” she said. “If not, I still think I have a good chance the next few years.”
Is Pliskova getting ahead of herself? Are the rest of us? After all, until six months ago, the 24-year-old had only recently cracked the Top 10, and had precious few significant victories to her name. Seven years after turning pro, Pliskova was known for streaks of stone-cold shot-making brilliance—nobody on either tour hits with easier power—and for her inability to make those streaks last. The long and lean six-footer was a finely-tuned ace machine, but with her no-margin ground strokes, it didn’t take much for that machine to suffer breakdowns everywhere else.
All of that has changed since last August. That month, she steamrolled Angelique Kerber to win the biggest title of her career, in Cincinnati. In September, she reached her first Grand Slam final, at the U.S. Open, and nearly beat Kerber again.
So far in 2017, Pliskova has been even better. She’s 15-1, with titles in Brisbane and Doha and a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open. And with Petra Kvitova sidelined, she has calmly stepped into the anchor’s role for the Czech Fed Cup team. Two weeks ago, she led them past Spain with two singles wins, including a 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Garbiñe Muguruza. All of that has left Pliskova ranked No. 3, behind only Kerber and Serena Williams. What else is there to talk about with her except winning Grand Slams and becoming No. 1?
Pliskova, who is working with Kvitova’s former mentor, David Kotyza, credits the new support squad she assembled last summer for her rise.
“It’s not only about the new coach,” she said on Saturday. “I changed—after last year [at] Wimbledon—completely my team. So I have a new fitness coach ...We’re trying to work on the movement a lot.”
“I think it’s still improving,” she added. “Even today they told me the movement was quite good, but still I think it can be better. Obviously there are some things that I still want to improve in the game, which is my backhand, my forehand.”
At her height, Pliskova’s movement will likely always be a work in progress. She’s tall and thin, and tends to stand straight up and down when she hits the ball. But as another tall and slender slugger, Maria Sharapova, has proven, court coverage can be bettered with time and determination. As far as her forehand and backhand go, it would be hard for Pliskova to better her ball-striking. Her timing is so pure that a seemingly casual swing can result in an unreturnable rocket off of her strings.
But Pliskova can still make those shots more consistent, and limit the error-filled runs that have always plagued her. As Roger Federer has said, the downside of making everything look effortless when you win is that when you lose, people think you’re literally giving no effort. That can be true with Pliskova. With her strokes and mindset, she’ll never be a model of consistency; the key for her is not letting those inevitable down periods cost her entire sets and matches.
That’s what she did on Saturday. Pliskova jumped out to an early lead against Wozniacki, then nearly gave it back when she had a backhand breakdown. Instead of succumbing to it, Pliskova increased her margin in the wind by hitting higher over the net and farther inside the lines. In the final game, she even outlasted Wozniacki in a long rally. Pliskova, who is normally stonily impassive no matter what the situation, let out a scream of satisfaction as a Wozniacki forehand sailed long. Beating Wozniacki was great, but out-rallying her was obviously something special. So was bouncing back from a big Fed Cup weekend to win another title.
“I felt a little bit tired after Fed Cup,” Pliskova said. “The weather here was strange. First two days I had off. It maybe helped me a little bit to stay in this week, to get some new power.”
“Getting some new power” sounds like something Simona Halep would say, but it applies perfectly to Pliskova, who has more natural power than just about anyone. In that sense, she’s a more natural major-title winner than Kerber, and a more natural successor to Serena. While the German has won majors and ascended to No. 1 with a defense-first game, she’s the exception. Pliskova’s attacking style, which allows her to control her own fate in the biggest moments, is the rule.
Pliskova has the second-best serve in women’s tennis, after Serena’s, and her back-to-back wins over the Williams sisters—in front of 23,000 intensely pro-American fans at the U.S. Open each time—were the equivalent of a rite of passage for the Czech. Before that, she wasn’t talking about winning Grand Slams with the confidence that she is now.
Is Pliskova getting ahead of herself? I’d say no: You have to dream it, and believe it, before you can do it. Now that she believes it, it’s only a matter of time before she makes it happen.