To mark the end of a record-setting 2019 season, wtatennis.com is counting down our picks for the best matches of the year.
Continuing the countdown in the Grand Slam category at No.3, Karolina Pliskova solved the Hsieh Su-Wei riddle in a fascinating Wimbledon battle:
WHAT HAPPENED: For a player who professes to dislike playing on grass, Karolina Pliskova was almost untouchable on the surface during the summer of 2019.
At the Wimbledon tune-up event in Eastbourne, Pliskova tore through the draw with little trouble to claim her third grass title of her career. Even more impressive were the scorelines she posted along the way: she didn’t drop a set throughout the week, taking down No.4 seed Kiki Bertens 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinal and made quick work of former Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber in the final, 6-1, 6-4.
"It's tough, because everybody thinks I have perfect game for grass," Pliskova had told press last year in Eastbourne. “But still… I can have perfect game, but you still have to play well, because now everything is so close…
“I think the only problem with me on the grass is that I'm still not able to go a little bit down in the knees. Maybe few shots I'm able to do it but not the whole match and not maybe the important points… But if I am able to hit few aces I don't need to go down."
It was almost fitting, then, that Pliskova would run into the one player at Wimbledon whose game seemed tailor-made to trouble her: Hsieh Su-Wei.
Famous for her crafty, double-handed shots and heaps of variety in her game, Hsieh had already taken down Pliskova in the quarterfinals of Dubai, and Pliskova was eager to get revenge in their third-round clash in London.
A tight opening set went the way of the Czech on Court No.1, with just one break of serve making the difference. Neither had faced a break point during the opening seven games, but a spate of errors from the player from Chinese Taipei gave Pliskova the perfect opening to strike at 4-3, and her booming serve kept her in front to take the set, 6-3.
Hsieh, however, had plenty of tricks up her sleeve for the second set. Using her trademark dropshots and changing up the pace, Hsieh moved Pliskova round the court masterfully to break at 3-1, consolidating her lead to 5-2. She broke serve once again to level the match at one set apiece.
Putting that vexing second-set quickly behind her, Pliskova recovered emphatically in the third. After earning an early break at 2-1, Pliskova honed in on her biggest weapon, cruising through her service games and blasting timely aces - leaving Hsieh scrambling and unable to keep apace.
It was a great performance from Pliskova, who struck 42 winners, including 14 thunderous aces. The powerful Czech had a clean match, firing just 22 unforced errors on the day. Hsieh, for her part, had 33 winners to just 10 unforced errors during the high-quality clash.
WHAT THEY SAID: Not one to mince words, Pliskova was honest in her post-match assessment. The difference, she said, was specific preparation with her then-coach Conchita Martinez in order to find her game through Hsieh’s low slices.
"It's tough to really prepare because sometimes I don't think she even know what she's going to play," Pliskova told press with a wry grin. "You have to be ready for everything. We, of course, prepared a little bit. I played some slices with [Conchita] She likes [those], as well. I think I was ready."
After dropping the second set, Pliskova explained that the key to bouncing back was to focus on the factors she could control, rather than on Hsieh’s tricky game.
"Pretty much all of the service games also in the third set were quite easy," she told press. "There was not that much trouble. I think that's what I did better, of course, compared to last matches when I played her.
“But of course, tricky, especially on grass. She can make you feel ugly, which I felt at some points.”
WHAT IT MEANT: Pliskova had never reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, but after passing that big test in the third round, it looked like 2019 could be the year.
All of Pliskova’s recent progress on grass was on display against Hsieh: her big serve to bail her out of trouble, her problem solving to bounce back after the second set, and her willingness to get low on the shots and run down everything.
A round later, however, that dream came to an end at the hands of under-the-radar giant-slayer Karolina Muchova in a dramatic, marathon tussle just one round later. This time, it was Pliskova’s countrywoman who came back from a set down in the longest women’s match of the fortnight, winning 4-6, 7-5, 13-11 - just one game shy of what would have been a historic third-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon.
Despite the stinging loss, it would turn out to be just a blip on the Czech’s otherwise stellar season, which saw her lift a trophy on every surface, with victories in Brisbane, Rome and Zhengzhou bracketing her Eastbourne win. She also a run to the Australian Open semifinal and the Miami final.
She would go on to qualify for the season-ending Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen for the fourth time, where she reached the semifinals, and ended the year as WTA World No.2.