MELBOURNE, Australia - Following Karolina Pliskova’s emphatic win over former pupil Garbiñe Muguruza at the Australian Open, coach Conchita Martinez pointed to another Spaniard as one to which the former World No.1 aspires.
“Rafa Nadal could be the perfect role model,” the 1994 Wimbledon champion said in a WTA Coaches press conference. “She was talking earlier this week about how it was amazing to see Rafa up, like, 6-0, 6-1, 3-0, still playing the same way he did on the first point. He’s still working the point, not making silly mistakes; he keeps going the same way.”
Focus and fire have been the key aspects Martinez and co-coach Rennae Stubbs have aimed to impart on Pliskova, who began working with the two former WTA stars before the 2018 US Open. Almost immediately, the three-time Ace Leader enjoyed an autumn renaissance - one that included an 11th career title at the Toray Pan Pacific Open - that helped her score a third straight berth at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, where she reached the semifinals.
The wins have kept coming in 2019, and Pliskova remains undefeated to start the season with a title run at the Brisbane International - though she’ll face her biggest test yet as 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams looms for Wednesday’s quarterfinal clash.
“We played at the US Open,” Pliskova recalled before Williams took out top seed Simona Halep Monday night. “I didn't play well that match, so for sure it would be good revenge to play her again. It’s different conditions here. I think I'm playing a little bit better than I was last year, so I’d be looking forward if she's gonna win. I think she's playing very solid this tournament. She didn't lose many games yet.”
Pliskova has come into her meetings with her fellow former World No.1 brimming with confidence, declaring she has “a game to beat Serena” ahead of their last match in Flushing Meadows, and indeed the Czech star shocked the American on Arthur Ashe Stadium en route to her first Grand Slam final back in 2016.
“Having wins against your opponents always helps,” Martinez said. “In the back of your head, you think about it and it gives you confidence. That’s a plus, but you have to prepare as you would any other match: keep your routines.”
Martinez retired from tennis in 2006 after nearly two decades on tour. Before pairing with Pliskova, the former World No.2 coached Muguruza to a Wimbledon crown in 2017, and is cautiously optimistic about her new charge’s chances to finally capture a maiden major title, noting her continued improvements in her Melbourne matches.
“I’m very excited about how well she’s playing, especially today. I think it was 23 winners, three unforced errors. That means she’s moving so well on the court that she’s always behind the ball. When you move that well, you can hit the ball however you want.
“The other day, she went to net – I don’t know how many times – but in her second round she finished so many points at the net. She’s becoming more aggressive, and we’re also working on her being more positive on court, which is really key to winning more matches.”
Acknowledging Williams’ caliber and quality, she nonetheless disputed Martina Navratilova’s assertion that a gap remained between the seven-time Australian Open champion and the rest of the field.
“Serena is a very strong player. We all know that. Look at what she has done since giving birth. She took her time, but pretty soon she was back to what she was. She’s an amazing athlete, an amazing champion, but there are other great players as well. It’s hard to compare yourself to someone who has won 23 Grand Slams, so that’s tough because she’s an amazing champion.
“Karolina is ready. We’re going to take the next match, and all of the matches she’s going to play with a lot of respect. She’s going to have to play her game, play her best tennis from now on because it gets harder and harder. She’s ready for the challenge. Bring it on, no?”
Asked if she also aimed to add elements of Roger Federer’s game in addition to Nadal's, she joked, “Stylistically, Karolina would have to work on her slice to be like Roger, although she did hit one today!”