Serena turns match around to dispatch Karolina Pliskova at the US Open

by: Steve Tignor | September 04, 2018

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Court Report takes a look back at Day 9 at the US Open:

NEW YORK—We all know what a turning point in a Serena Williams match is supposed to look like. More important, we know what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s supposed to involve a winning shot and a roar of epic proportions from Serena, one that shakes up her opponents, and lets everyone know, just in case they had forgotten, that she’s still here, and still planning to win.

That’s the scenario that ESPN commentators Chris Evert and Chris Fowler were anticipating through much of the first set of Serena’s quarterfinal with Karolina Pliskova on Tuesday. Serena was in her second service game; she had watched Pliskova hold at love; and she had faced three more break points at 1-3. Serena avoided the double break by coming up with a service winner on each of those points, but from the ground she was still struggling to put two balls in a row in the court. By the sixth game, she was well into double digits in unforced errors.

(Photos by Anita Aguilar)

Yet the roar never came; this time, it turned out, she didn’t need it. Instead, Serena’s comeback began when she applied pressure to Pliskova’s serve at 3-4 and broke. She followed that by slamming down three unreturnable serves to hold for 5-4. And then she came back from 40-0 down to break again for the set. By now, the errors from Serena’s racquet had turned to winners.

In the 10th game, she hit one from the forehand side, one from the backhand side, and another from the forehand side. By the time it was over, the fight had gone out of Pliskova’s game. Serena won nine straight points to start the second set, and went up a double break at 4-0.

This time, the turnaround had come smoothly and quietly. Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told ESPN that it happened because Serena “stopped rushing,” when she realized Pliskova wasn’t hurting her, and that she had time to be patient. Two years ago in New York, Pliskova had beaten Serena, and Serena may have over-remembered that loss, and over-rated Pliskova’s power.

Whatever the reason, Serena did play more patiently from 2-4 in the first set to 4-0 in the second, and the result was some of her most gracefully lethal tennis. Rather than go for broke early in rallies, she gradually moved Pliskova out of position, and gradually moved herself into position for finishing shots. And, of course, she always had her serve to back her up. At 4-2 in the second set, Serena faced four break points; she erased them with—what else?—four unreturnable first serves. A few minutes later, she closed out the match in similar fashion, with an imperious three-ace final game for a more-complicated than-it-sounds 6-4, 6-3 win.

“I just thought that I wasn’t playing my best tennis,” Serena said of her mind-set when she was down 2-4 in the first set. “I was just thinking, you know, I can play better. So that was the good news. Then I thought, ‘Just try to make less errors,’ because at that point I was missing a lot of shots. I just had to figure out a way to just try to at least make one, and one at a time.”

Serena has traditionally played some of her best tennis when she dials the power back a notch and settles into rallies; even for her, simply making shots is a confidence builder.

But was there another reason that Serena remained so calm as she turned this match around? Was there a reason the roar never came? The previous day, Pliskova told reporters that she was looking forward to facing Serena in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and she told the New York Times, “She has a big game, but sometimes she behaves bigger than her game is.”

Serena didn’t say anything about those comments; she let her racquet do the talking instead. It was left to her husband, Alexis Ohanian, Sr., that hinted that the message had been received.

“Big game, Serena Williams,” he tweeted after the match, “big game.”

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