Sometimes it’s fun to imagine Karolina Pliskova playing perfect tennis. The flat serves darting past her opponents before they can move a muscle. The slice serves hooking down the T and just out of their reach. The beautifully timed crosscourt forehands and low-crouch two-handed backhands bolting down the line for winners. The much-improved movement putting her in position for every stroke in plenty of time. There aren’t many games that look as good—as smoothly ruthless—as Pliskova’s does when it’s going well.

By her own admission, Pliskova didn’t play the perfect match to beat No. 1 seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-4 in Montreal on Saturday. The wind messed with her timing on a few balls. Sabalenka’s power was too much for her on others. And she was actually broken, once, in the second set. But this was still Pliskova playing up to her considerable potential, which is not something we’ve seen on a regular basis in recent years. “Discipline” was the watchword from her coach, Sascha Bajin, today, and she lived by it.

“I have a tendency to go negative,” Pliskova said with a smile, referring to the challenges that the wind and Sabalenka’s game posed, “but I think I did a good job today.”

That started, naturally, with her serve. When Pliskova and Sabalenka faced off in the Wimbledon semifinals last month, that shot was the difference-maker. That day Sabalenka did everything she possibly could from the ground, and she was better in most aspects of the game. But Pliskova negated all of it with her serve. While it wasn’t quite as crucial today, she made 71 percent of her first serves, bombed 10 aces, and bailed herself out of a few 0-30 and 15-30 jams with big deliveries.

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There aren’t many games that look as good—as smoothly ruthless—as Pliskova’s does when it’s going well.

There aren’t many games that look as good—as smoothly ruthless—as Pliskova’s does when it’s going well.

All of which was exceedingly frustrating for Sabalenka, who stared in disbelief and threw her hands up in exasperation at half a dozen clutch Pliskova serves. When Sabalenka finally broke in the second set, she didn’t seem to know what to do next. In the following game, she double faulted twice and hit a wild backhand to give the break back.

From Sabalenka’s point of view, the key stat was the unforced error count: She committed 29, Pliskova only 12. Sabalenka fired her favorite shot, her crosscourt forehand, for winners, but she shanked almost as many. Pliskova couldn’t match Sabalenka’s baseline pace, but she redirected the ball, counter-punched opportunistically, and moved just well enough herself.

“I did exactly what I had to do,” Pliskova said.

Now she’ll play her third final of the year, and hope to earn her first title. After her runner-up finish at Wimbledon, I wondered whether that performance, and how close she came to taking home the game’s biggest trophy, would change her mindset in any way. Pliskova has always had sky-high talent, but not the expectations to match. If she can set them higher, she can win any title, and win it multiple times. That was true when she was 23, and it’s still true at 29.

For now, Pliskova will try to win her first event of 2021 against either Jessica Pegula or Camila Giorgi. Who do you think she’s rooting for? Pliskova and Pegula have already faced off four times this season, and the American has won all four. If Pliskova is going to rise higher in the rankings and contend for majors, she has to move well and expect more from herself. But she’s also going to have to beat Pegula sooner or later. There’s no time like the present.