Martic flummoxes Pliskova, and earns a massive French Open opportunity

Martic flummoxes Pliskova, and earns a massive French Open opportunity

With the bottom half of the women's draw in tatters, the Croat’s masterfully modulated game can take her far at Roland Garros.

“I don’t know if Roland Garros has a special relationship with me,” Petra Martic said after her 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova at the French Open on Friday, “but I have it with Roland Garros. I really love this tournament. I love this surface. I really feel great here.”

Martic certainly looked at home inside Court Philippe Chatrier this morning. There were no big-stage, big-match jitters for the 31st seed. She had, after all, been here before, having reached the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2012 and 2017. As always, the Croat moved across the clay with ease—nobody seems to relish the chance to slide on dirt quite like Martic, who does it even when it might not be entirely necessary. It gives her game a flow that few others can match.

Martic’s movement was always going to be key in a contest with the heavier-hitting Pliskova. What do you do against a tall, powerful player? It’s not rocket science: You force her to move and hit balls on the run, you lengthen the points, and you do whatever it takes to keep her from gaining the upper hand in rallies.

“They key was to focus on my game, and try to dictate instead of letting her dictate, which is her biggest strength,” Martic said. “I had to kind of take it away from her, at times it was difficult.”

Martic specializes in making the difficult look easy, the sophisticated look simple. She went deep into her bag of shotmaking tricks to keep Pliskova from hitting the same shot twice in a row. Martic came over one backhand and then came under the next one. She hit with length, and then dropped the ball short. She went crosscourt and then down the line. Instead of going for aces on her serve, she tried to set herself up for the second shot and keep Pliskova off balance. On defense, Martic let her natural anticipation work for her. On offense, she didn’t try to finish rallies with a single bullet winner; she was content to force errors from Pliskova’s racquet.

“I think this surface also suits me a little bit better than it suits her,” Martic said, “and I used it against her.”

While Martic was comfortable, Pliskova never looked at home in this match. At 3-3 in the first set, she went up 40-0, and ended up being broken; that seemed to put some doubt and frustration into her head where they hadn’t been before. Martic’s depth and variation kept her from getting dialed in, especially on her backhand; more than once, Pliskova couldn’t get her feet set on that side, and swung late.

“She just made it difficult for me today,” Pliskova said. “...I think the court is pretty slow, so you just have to play some extra shots. She just has this kind of game which you don’t feel good about, and I think she played well.”

Pliskova, Kiki Bertens, Petra Kvitova: They were the winners of the three big French Open lead-in events, in Rome Madrid, and Stuttgart, and they were three of the pre-tournament favorites at Roland Garros. Now all three are gone before the fourth round—Kvitova withdrew with a forearm injury, Bertens retired with stomach flu, and now Pliskova has fallen to a difficult, under-the-radar opponent. While it’s no shame to lose to Martic, Pliskova will likely be disappointed by the opportunity that slipped away. The highest seed she could have faced before the semifinals was No. 12 Anastasija Sevastova.

Instead, it’s the 28-year-old Martic, who has been to the fourth round at a major four times but never made it farther, who will travel down that path toward the semifinals, and who may now feel the pressure of new expectations. The only two Grand Slam champions in the bottom half of the draw currently remaining are Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza, and they could face each other in the fourth round.

“I have bigger goals than [winning today],” Martic said, “and I hope I can just continue this way.”

By the time she’s done, Roland Garros may feel the same way about her as she does about it.