NEW YORK—A game after losing the first set of her second-round US Open match, 6-1, top seed Karolina Pliskova hit a second serve at deuce. Like many shots she had hit in that first set, it missed the mark. Pliskova connected on just one winner in the opener despite owning one of the best forehands in tennis, a game-breaking weapon that has taken her to the US Open final, No. 1 in the world rankings, and has kept her in the Top 5 for much of the last four years.
With frustration mounting, Pliskova bounced her racquet off the court in Louis Armstrong Stadium. A point later, Pliskova’s serve was broken. Four points later, so was her racquet. With Garcia still in motion after a gorgeous running forehand pass, Pliskova wound up and cracked her Babolat against the Laykold surface, the detonation filling the vacant arena with sound and fury.
As break points go, that may have been Pliskova’s best one on a day when so much went wrong. Despite her shiny resume, the Czech has a history of stumbling when the pressure peaks. The top seed in Flushing Meadows after Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep skipped the major, Pliskova came into the tournament facing questions about her ability to back up her number, particularly after an opening-round loss at the previous week’s Western & Southern Open. She’ll leave the US Open with even more.
Not that Pliskova believes it was an issue on Wednesday.
"No, zero pressure from this for me," she said about the burden of being the top seed. "This is nothing to do with my loss today."
Take nothing, though, away from Garcia, a 6-1, 7-6 (2) winner on a blustery afternoon. One of the most talented unseeded players in the draw, she was also a difficult match-up for Pliskova: the 50th-ranked Frenchwoman now boasts a 4-3 record against her, and a two-match winning streak.
"There are ups and downs in every career," said Garcia, who was No. 4 in the world less than two years ago, but per Ben Rothenberg was 1-14 against Top 20 players at Slams before today. "I feel more quiet in myself after a few quiet months."
In a wide-open quarter of the draw, Garcia will face Jennifer Brady for a place in the fourth round. (Getty Images)
Garcia's ups are wide-ranging: seven WTA titles, including the Wuhan-Beijing double in 2017; a French Open doubles title; a Fed Cup trophy; and, perhaps best known, being called a future No. 1 by Andy Murray.
As good as the 26-year-old's career has been, Murray's prediction is likely to end up on Old Takes Exposed. Though if you watched this match and didn't know who the No. 1 seed was, you would have surely said it was Garcia.
While Pliskova owned the biggest shot on the court, Garcia had a decisive edge in seemingly every extended rally. Her spin tormented Pliskova in the wind, the gusts working their way down to the court through the open-air stadium, left for the players to deal with as best they could. Garcia handled it best. Pliskova notched 19 errors in all—just two more than Garcia, but with 13 fewer winners.
"I maybe didn't play my best," Pliskova said. "I didn't serve that great, especially early in the match. But that's how it is sometimes. I'm not a robot, so I don't have to play every day amazing."
Up a set and a break, there was little evidence to suggest a Pliskova turnaround—aside from the obligatory pressure an underdog faces when victory is within reach, and what Garcia may have been referring to as "downs."
For all Garcia has accomplished, her performance at the Slams is shockingly dismal. She's reached just one quarterfinal, at Roland Garros in 2017, with early-round losses commonplace. In her previous five major appearances, her record is 4-5.
Pliskova leaves the US Open bubble with a 1-2 record, and more doubt about her status as a true top threat. (Getty Images)
So it may not have been a shock when Garcia began to tighten on serve midway through the second set. At the same time, Pliskova began holding her serve with ease, and was finding her targets with her forehand lasers. When she broke Garcia for 4-4, frustration had given way to applause and yells of support from coaching team, including Dani Vallerdu.
At 4-5, Garcia saved two set points. At 5-6, after another quick Pliskova hold, it was Garcia's turn to deal with the wind. She caught one service toss twice, then had to step back; when she lost that point, Vallerdu came alive. But impressively, Garcia bore down and won the next three points, forcing a tiebreaker. And while she didn't realize it at the time, she had erased Pliskova's best chance at turning the match around.
"That was definitely one ball I could make," recalled Pliskova about one of the set points. "I had second serve on my forehand. Maybe I should just play rally. I tried to go for it. It was a little bit windy on the court. I think she played amazing set and a half. Of course I got my chances later in the second set. I didn't play good, so that's it."
In keeping the set alive, Garcia overcame her biggest hurdle. She played the second-set tiebreaker with the confident ease of someone who's done it time and again. At 2-2, her jumping forehand spun in near the baseline, maybe aided by the wind. At 4-2, she smacked an ace. And at quadruple match point, she clocked a service return that Pliskova could hardly get back. Big ups to Garcia for closing it out as she did.
Garcia has been here before—this her fourth trip to the third round at the US Open. Can she go even farther? Jennifer Brady, a trendy pick to beat Pliskova before the tournament began, will be another significant challenge for Garcia. But maybe those prognosticators had the trendy pick wrong all along.