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Pliskova may not think she’s a “clay-court girl,” but she won in Rome
If everything is working for the Czech in Paris the way it was in Rome, we may be thinking of her as a clay-court girl very soon.
Published May 19, 2019
“Everything is working,” Karolina Pliskova’s coach, Conchita Martinez, said when she visited the Czech after the first set of the Rome women’s final on Sunday.
If Martinez was exaggerating to make her player feel better, it was only by a tiny bit. Everything really was working for the coolly commanding Pliskova in her match against surprise finalist Johanna Konta, and it would continue to work just as well in the second set.
Pliskova was in total control on her serve; she mixed speeds and spins, won high percentages of points on her first and second balls, and faced just one break point. She was nearly as efficient on her return. After breaking in the opening game of the match, Pliskova cruised through the rest of the first set. In the second set, she raised her return game at exactly the right moment, for exactly as long as necessary, to break at 3-3, and serve out a 6-3, 6-4 victory from there. The win gave the 27-year-old her biggest title on clay, and her biggest title of 2019. A player who has been knocking on the door for most of the year has just broken it down, and not a moment too soon. Pliskova will go to the French Open as the second seed.
Still, while everything seemed to be going according to plan on Sunday, Pliskova finished the day in disbelief at what she had just done.
“It feels great, especially since nobody really gave me a chance for this tournament, even, I think, me,” Pliskova told reporters after the match. “Before the tournament, I was not super confident, not thinking about the final at all. I was just happy with every match I played.”
“So it’s a little bit of a miracle for me.”
Like her coach, if Pliskova was exaggerating her surprise, it probably wasn’t by much. After a strong start to the season—Brisbane title, Australian Open semi, Miami final—Pliskova’s momentum had stalled on clay. She lost in the first round in Stuttgart, withdrew from Prague, and went out in the second round in Madrid. But she found her clay legs in Rome the old fashioned way: by hitting a lot of balls, and surviving three-set wars of attrition, against Sofia Kenin and Victoria Azarenka.
By Sunday, Pliskova knew her way around the often-bumpy dirt at the Foro Italico. She won several important points with her defense, and had no trouble sliding forward, dirtball-style, and flipping a touch winner at net.
“I was coming to this tournament just to get couple of matches,” Pliskova said. “Last year, the final was Simona-Svitolina, all the good clay-court girls with good clay-court games. I thought it’s going to be quite difficult to get through some matches.”
The implication is that Pliskova herself isn’t one of those “good clay-court girls” with a “good clay-court game.” At first glance, most of us might agree. Pliskova is a hitter rather than a runner—even today, Martinez reminded Pliskova to be “more active” with her legs. But recent women’s-tennis history says that first-strike tennis can succeed in Paris. In fact, over the 10 years, the big hitters, rather than the traditional clay-court girls, have dominated there. Since 2012, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, and Garbiñe Muguruza have all won one or more French Open titles. Pliskova’s patented play today—a penetrating serve, followed up by a winning forehand—works equally well on all surfaces.
“There’s rarely a rhythm to the match,” Konta said of playing Pliskova. “She plays with big shots, quite flat, and big serves. It can feel sometimes like you’re fighting an uphill battle. That was the case today.”
What was different today for Pliskova, and what is gradually becoming the norm for her, is that she was able to keep that game up, with no letdown, for two solid sets. Pliskova hit 21 winners and made just 14 errors, and while she pelted down her share of aces, she also change the pace on her serve intelligently. After double faulting twice while serving at 4-3 in the second set, she made sure she made her first serves when she served for the match at 5-4.
“I have to go like this, because otherwise there is no reason to go at all,” Pliskova said of how she plans to play in Paris. “If I go to lose, then you going to lose. I have to go with this mindset that my game is good on clay, too.”
It’s not just in Pliskova’s mind. If everything is working for Pliskova in Paris the way it was in Rome, we may be thinking of her as a clay-court girl very soon.