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Get Low: Karolina Pliskova emerges from career crevasse with renewed clarity ahead of US Open
The former No. 1 and Flushing Meadows finalist discussed her quest for perfectionism ahead of a first-round clash with Caty McNally.
Published Aug 30, 2021
WATCH: Pliskova spoke to press after reaching her third final of the season in Montréal.
NEW YORK—Karolina Pliskova can define her career by a willingness to bend. The theme first crept into consciousness when assessing her on-court technique, how her lithe 6’2” frame locks into an upright position and prevents her from countering shots outside her center of gravity.
But the former world No. 1 has had to broaden her naturally narrow comfort zone from an early age, starting when a burgeoning tennis career forced her to adapt from a rural upbringing in Louny to the faster-paced Prague.
“We used to be outside of big cities, spending more time in nature,” Pliskova recalled in her inimitable staccato on Sunday, “but because of tennis, you needed to be in city because you can’t drive everywhere. I somehow got more used to the fancy life, restaurants and always having people around, so now I actually like being in the city.”
City life looks good on the 29-year-old. Having since conquered everything from lockdown rust to her own sky-high expectations, the Wimbledon runner-up is back to playing her best tennis, and glows amidst the Manhattan skyline ahead of her ninth US Open appearance. Pliskova first made the Flushing Meadows final in 2016; shocking both Williams sisters, she came within two games of her first Grand Slam title against Angelique Kerber, whom she’d beaten two weeks earlier in Cincinnati.
Though she would sit atop the WTA rankings the following summer, success on the major stage largely eluded her for the next five years, something Pliskova attributes to a maddening perfectionism—one that acts in diametric opposition to her high-risk game.
“On one hand, I can be such a perfectionist that I never want to miss or make mistakes,” she explains. “On the other I still have to play this kind of game where there’s always going to be mistakes; it’s impossible to play without mistakes. So, I do sometimes have this kind of battle with myself and my game, where I’m thinking I need to play more aggressively but I also don’t want to miss or make an easy mistake.”
It’s a rare admission from a player who typically exudes thudding certainty in her post-match press conferences. Pliskova speaks in a stream-of-consciousness prose, oscillating between thesis and context at a head-spinning speed. The content itself is ordinarily a variation of “Invictus”: armed with an intimidating serve and easy power, the once and future Ace Queen is the master of her fate—win or lose.
“I can be negative and feel like, even if I won the point, it wasn’t so clear and I could have played better,” she says. “This can become my thinking after every point. With my personality, it’s not that I’m scared but I just want to have everything perfect, and clear with no mistakes. I know I can play like that, even if not for the whole match, but I want always to be that perfect.”
A reliable tour calendar was among the few things able to ease the near-constant pressure Pliskova felt on court; COVID-19 and the subsequent tour lockdown threatened to throw even that modicum of stability into disarray.
The people I have around me are a big part of my success and my game, because in my negative moments they will remind me that I still won the point, and it doesn’t have to be as beautiful as I might like. Karolina Pliskova
“In the last five or even ten years, I never missed a tournament. I would finish at the Masters or, before that, I would always play until the last week of the WTA calendar. So, I’ve never had this big of a break and it definitely affected my physically and emotionally, where I had trouble feeling the same way at tournaments as I would before," Pliskova says. "At the beginning of this season I was just relieved how there would be tournaments every week again, which used to be such a normal thing to me, and everything would be ok regardless of whether I won or lost because there was always a tournament the following week. Last year everything felt rarer and it made me more fearful in matches than I would even be in practice.
“I’m sure I would do something different if there was another lockdown and seven months without tournaments. But at the time, we had no idea how long we would be without tennis, and we never knew if we should be practicing or not. It was all kind of a mess.”
That amplified indecision was on display when she returned to New York to play a spectator-free US Open. Quarantined beyond city limits, Pliskova was left grasping for even her most basic instincts.
“I was asking myself how I should act on court, like, should I fist pump? I had no idea how to behave.”
As the No. 1 seed, she fell in the second round to Caroline Garcia and even with the pre-pandemic schedule largely back in place—and a new coaching hire in Sascha Bajin—she reached just one final between Manhattan and Melbourne and amassed a string of early exits that culminated with a disastrous Middle East swing.
“You have to remember how for five years I barely ever lost in the first or second round and I started this season losing early almost every week, it was driving me crazy! I had a period after Dubai and Doha where I was thinking of skipping the Miami Open," she says. "I was feeling so horribly and playing so bad. I was thinking how I’ve never skipped a tournament just because I was playing bad. Sascha wanted to know what was going on because I wasn’t injured and I was saying I just felt so tired and didn’t feel like competing. Sascha said this just isn’t the way: ‘Even if you’re not playing well, it’s better to go and to try.’
“I think there was something to that because it was in Miami that I had a match with Jessica Pegula where I was down 6-1, 4-0 and I turned to where I almost won. It wasn’t a massive result, like making a final, but things started to change big and on clay I started to play much better. Looking back, it was a good decision to go, but I think I decided to play all these tournaments because it can only get better the more I play.
“I’m not the type of player who will go on losing forever, anyway,” she adds with her signature self-depracating swagger, “so I figured once my game clicks a bit, that for sure I’ll have some good weeks. It maybe took longer than I might have expected.”
Pliskova credits Bajin’s positive outlook with deflating some of her more implosive tendencies, freeing her to dig into her oft-reviled grass courts and reach a long-awaited second major final at the All England Club.
“I’m still learning. The people I have around me are a big part of my success and my game because in my negative moments. Sascha will remind me that I still won the point and it doesn’t have to be as beautiful as I might like.”
Her quest for perfection predictably took a hit this summer when visa issues precluded Bajin from accompanying Pliskova to the United States, leaving her in the hands of Czech coach Leos Friedl and in the familiar position of making unexpected adjustments.
“He’s in contact with Sascha, so we’ve been putting plans together for this practice week," Pliskova says. "I speak with Sascha pretty much every day, as well, to let him know how I’m feeling at the end of each day and how practices are going. It’s not exactly like if he was here, because I wouldn’t have to explain things to him that he would simply be able to see, and he knows me pretty well. But staying in contact with him as often as I do, it helps make him feel as if he’s here.”
Curveball aside, Pliskova is enjoying a respite in her favorite city—not even New York City traffic could dampen her mood on the eve of a fortnight she aims to dominate.
“Success like that gives you more motivation and confidence, and even the will to train that much harder, so it’s made everything much easier right now."
The relief is evident even over the phone for Pliskova, who is quick to laugh and sounds loose enough to get low for the very shots that have plagued her in the past. Should this mood hold, expect nothing short of perfection.