Pliskova plays with fire again, but finds a way into fourth round

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Karolina Pliskova defeated Zhang Shuai, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, saving a match point in the second. (AP)

NEW YORK—Karolina Pliskova has been playing with fire in New York this week.

She did so on Thursday against Nicole Gibbs, when she needed three sets to advance, and again on Saturday afternoon against 27th-seeded Zhang Shuai.

Playing in her first Grand Slam as the world No. 1, the Czech star saved a match point in her 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The top seed dropped the first set rather routinely, just as she did in the second round, and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second. But just as I was getting ready for a decisive third, the 26th-ranked Chinese player stormed back to take five of the next six games for a 5-4 lead. 

The New York crowd, in the underdog’s corner all match, got loud for the first time all afternoon as Shuai earned match point. She failed to close Pliskova out, though, committing a backhand error that you just knew would come back to bite her. Pliskova took that game, and the next two, to force a third.

Impressively not demoralized by her missed opportunity, Shuai broke last year’s runner-up early in the third to go up 2-0. 

The third set, and the majority of the match, for that matter, was filled with long rallies and long games. It always seemed to be deuce, with momentum yo-yoing back and forth at a rapid pace. Shuai, to her great credit, was matching Pliskova’s power, or at least staying with it. 

The difference, though, as it is in so many of Pliskova’s matches, was the Czech’s serve. It bailed her out time and time again—she had nine aces to Shuai’s two—and helped her get back into the third. At 5-4, she broke her opponent—she belted a crosscourt backhand at net on match point—to secure the match and, to tremendous relief, earn a spot in the round of 16.

In her on-court interview following the third-round win, the 25-year-old said that she’d be ready for her next match despite receiving treatment on her right forearm between the second and third sets. She also admitted, refreshingly, that she didn’t feel nearly as calm as she looked on court.

You would never tell. Pliskova, even when she’s not at her best, takes chances in critical moments and finds a way to win. And with her serve, she’s never out of a match. 

At the beginning of the tournament, eight women had a chance to be No. 1 when the US Open was over. That number has been whittled down to three: Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Elina Svitolina.

Pliskova will play American Jennifer Brady next for a spot in the quarterfinals. 

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