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On fourth match point, Karolina Pliskova edges past Garbine Muguruza in WTA Finals round-robin opener
With an 8-6 tiebreaker triumph, the Czech defeated the only other player in this season-ending championships that has previously played in one.
Published Nov 11, 2021
MATCH POINT: Finally, Pliskova can take a breath.
Night one of the Akron WTA Finals from Guadalajara, with two of the WTA’s hardest hitters, world No. 4 Karolina Pliskova and fifth-ranked Garbine Muguruza, trotting out to play. These two are also the only two of the eight players in this prestigious event who’ve previously played it. Spice things up with the high altitude—just over 5,000 feet—and you have the ingredients for a match that will be flavored by both crisp drives and up-and-down play.
In two hours and 27 minutes, Pliskova squeaked past Muguruza, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6). In one of the wackier tiebreakers you’re likely to see, eleven of the 14 points were won by the receiver, including the final one, Pliskova closing it out on her fourth match point.
“It was a fighting third set, about a couple points," said Pliskova. "Of course a bit lucky. I thought I just had too many chances, didn't make it really, but happy it went my way in the end.”
Amid such high altitude, it’s challenging for players who hit as flat as these two to keep the ball in the court. “It’s not easy to play here,” said Muguruza.
Many a rally tilted on who could most quickly make the other run and elicit a flat drive struck long or wide. Perhaps the difference this evening was Pliskova’s more compact swing shape, a deceptive but useful technical skill that helps her issue frequent lasers and repeatedly rob opponents of time and space. Then there was the history between these two: Pliskova having dominated their rivalry, 8-2 prior to this match.
At the start, it seemed Pliskova was on the path for victory number nine. In the first set, she captured Muguruza’s opening service game to go up 2-0. But from there, everything flipped. A pair of double-faults helped hand back the break. Soon taking a 4-2 lead, Muguruza showed off much of the form that has helped her earn two Grand Slam singles titles—sustained depth, powerful serves, rally-closing down-the-line drives. Serving for the set at 5-4, 30-all, Muguruza composed an excellent sequence: kick serve, followed by a sharp crosscourt forehand that gave her the chance to move forward and knock off an untouchable forehand swing volley. There followed a meager Pliskova backhand and the close of a 39-minute first set, 6-4 for Muguruza.
You wouldn’t want to play poker versus Pliskova. For while she may often seem subdued, do not equate that with a lack of competitive firepower. Addressing her mindset after losing the first set, Pliskova said, “I was not feeling the best. But then I just went for it a bit more. I thought I was, like, a bit too passive in the first set and still making mistakes. I said, okay, just go for it a bit more. If I'm still making mistakes, at least I will have some winners.”
As had been the case in the first set, Pliskova again broke Muguruza early in the second set. But this time, she battened down the hatches, holding at love to take a 3-0 lead. Most notably, Pliskova began to take advantage of Muguruza’s shallow second serve. With Muguruza serving at 2-5, 15-all, Pliskova hit two consecutive down-the-line winning returns—a backhand, followed by a forehand—to earn a pair of set points. Though Muguruza fought off both, Pliskova soon enough captured the game to even the match.
The third set proved what an illusion momentum in tennis can be. Seemingly now primed to charge ahead, Pliskova served at 15-0 love and then played four points she’d like to forget—two netted forehands, two double-faults. But Muguruza subsequently dropped her serve at 15.
As the third set continued, Pliskova held the slight tactical edge by dint of having served first. One wonders how differently all would have been had Muguruza held at 2-5 in the second set. But instead, the Spaniard constantly served with her back to the wall. At 3-4, Pliskova held a break point, only to hit a forehand return long, Muguruza recovering to hold for 4-all. In the next game, Pliskova fought off a break point with a fantastic second serve kicker, followed by a trademark backhand down-the-line winner. Back went the pressure to Muguruza. At 4-5, Muguruza saved two match points, the first with a superb serve down the T, the second won when a tight Pliskova netted a backhand.
In one of the wackier tiebreakers you’re likely to see, eleven of the 14 points were won by the receiver, including the final one, Pliskova closing it out on her fourth match point.
And when Muguruza went up 15-40 on Pliskova at 5-all, she seemed the one ready to win. Instead, Pliskova fought back, aided by a fine wide serve on one point and a crisp crosscourt forehand on the next. If these two never quite played their best tennis at the same time, each had plenty of her own moments. Thin air is not the friend of the flat hitter. On the other hand, Muguruza’s coach, Conchita Martinez, would have thrived in these conditions with her savvy ability to impart ample topspin.
The tiebreaker continued the rollercoaster-like quality. Pliskova’s double-fault at 1-2 handed Muguruza a tidy lead—which she promptly lost on the next point. Muguruza also served at 5-4, only to miss a pair of forehands, one long, the second wide. Pliskova then surrendered her third match point, forced into a backhand error by a deep Muguruza service return. In the end, though, two Muguruza errors swung it in Pliskova’s favor.
“I fought as hard as I could,” said Muguruza. “At the end was just one point difference. I'm actually proud of the match I played due to the circumstances. I loved the crowd. Even though I suffered during this match, I also felt very energized and motivated to play in Mexico.”
And then, with a smile, she added a comment you’ll only here at this tournament: “Well, the round-robin keeps going on.”