MATCH POINT: Pliskova returns to a Grand Slam final at Wimbledon.

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“I think still half like I can’t believe it,” Karolina Pliskova said after her 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win over Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals at Wimbledon on Thursday.

If you’ve ever heard Pliskova speak, you know those words sounded just the way they read, like a torrent of syllables pouring out in record time. If you know anything about her recent results, you probably agree with what she’s saying. It’s hard to believe she’s in the Wimbledon final. This is a player who had never made the quarterfinals, let alone the semis, at the All England Club. This is also a player who had lost in the first round at both of her Wimbledon tune-ups, and surrendered her seemingly perennial place in the Top 10. By this summer, it seemed possible that the 29-year-old’s best days were behind her, and that she would never make the most of her exquisite shot-making skills.

“Coming into this tournament, the dream was to make the second week,” Pliskova said. “Never thought about, like, maybe going into the final.”

Looking back, two early events can be seen as harbingers of Pliskova’s success. She opened with a tough win over Tamara Zidansek, who was coming off a breakthrough run to the semifinals at Roland Garros. Then, two rounds later, Ludmilla Samsonova knocked out Jessica Pegula in three sets. Why am I mentioning this? Because Pegula and Pliskova had already played four times in 2021, and Pegula had won all four. They appeared to be on a collision course for a fifth meeting on Manic Monday, until Samsonova, reprising the role that Robin Soderling played for Roger Federer at the 2009 French Open, got in the way.

“I think you need luck,” Pliskova said of the sudden turnaround in her fortunes. “Yeah, super happy that it worked out because we are, like, trying for a while just to play good.”

When Pliskova loses, we often criticize her for being too casual. When she wins, we praise her for being cool under pressure. She’s never been cooler, under more pressure, than she was in the third set today.

When Pliskova loses, we often criticize her for being too casual. When she wins, we praise her for being cool under pressure. She’s never been cooler, under more pressure, than she was in the third set today.

There was no luck involved in Pliskova’s hard-fought, high-quality win over Sabalenka. These two offensive-minded women played tense, tight and aggressive—but never reckless—tennis. They hit 32 aces between them, and were broken just three times. For a set and a half, it looked like Sabalenka would be the winner. She was the No. 2 seed, she was 2-0 against Pliskova, and she had stolen the first set from under her opponent’s nose. After saving numerous break points, Sabalenka converted on her first, when Pliskova double-faulted at set point.

“I was, like, super pissed about that because I thought I had so many chances in the first set,” Pliskova said. “It’s not like I [did] like, something really wrong. I thought especially the last game I could do much better. Not only the double-fault. I had two easy shots early in the game.”

And then, with Sabalenka serving at 2-2 in the second, Pliskova entered The Zone. Every swing she took was suddenly perfectly timed. She broke at love with three huge returns, and then held at love. Serving for the set at 5-4, Pliskova overcame a 15-30 deficit with three big forehands. After the last one, this least-expressive of players even raised her first. I’m not sure she actually pumped it, but we’ll take what we can get.

Pliskova’s momentum continued in the third, when she broke an unsteady Sabalenka in the opening game. After that, though, Sabalenka righted the ship and wasn’t broken again. The last five games were like a auto race down the homestretch, when one car is constantly threatening, but never quite succeeding, to overtake the other. Sabalenka ran, grunted, emoted and belted the ball as hard as she could. But Pliskova always had her serve to keep her in the lead. Despite a couple of nervous-looking ball tosses in the final game, she hit two service winners and an ace to hold for the win.

“To win two sets in a row with the way how she was serving today, I think she was serving incredible, all my chances she just put, like, amazing serves in,” Pliskova said. “Yeah, like super proud about the way how I handled the situation out there, the second and third set, and that I served out the match.”

When Pliskova loses, we often criticize her for being too casual. When she wins, we praise her for being cool under pressure. She’s never been cooler, under more pressure, than she was in the third set today. She more than earned her first Wimbledon final.