Karolina Pliskova has made a long-awaited return to a Grand Slam final, as the No.8 seed from the Czech Republic fought past No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the Wimbledon semifinals.
"Coming into this tournament, the dream was to make the second week, of course, because I was not in [a Grand Slam] second week for a while," Pliskova said in her post-match press conference. "Never I thought about maybe going into the final."
It has been nearly five years since Pliskova reached her only prior major final at the 2016 US Open, which she lost in a close three-setter to Angelique Kerber. The Czech now has another shot at her first Grand Slam crown thanks to her one-hour and 53-minute comeback victory over Sabalenka.
"After losing the first set, I thought it was going to be super tough to win this match," Pliskova said. "Then to win two sets in a row with the way how she was serving today -- I think she was serving incredible, all my chances she just put amazing serves in. Super proud about the way how I handled the situation out there, the second and third set, and that I served out the match."
Sabalenka had won their two previous encounters, both times fighting back from third-set deficits, and also saving match points in their most recent battle at Cincinnati in 2018. This time, Pliskova held onto her third-set advantage as she powered her way to victory -- the first time since 2010 that the loser of the opening set won a women's singles semifinal at Wimbledon.
In the hard-hitting clash, Sabalenka out-winnered Pliskova by 38 to 31, with both players firing a bevy of aces: 18 for Sabalenka, 13 for Pliskova. But Sabalenka could only conjure up one break point all day -- on set point of the first set, where Pliskova hit a double fault -- as Pliskova was otherwise pristine on both serve and return.
Ironically, former World No.1 Pliskova had seen her ranking fall out of the Top 10 for the first time in nearly five years in the most recent rankings, which were released on the first day of Wimbledon. These two weeks will prove to be an aberration in her ranking consistency, as she will return to the Top 10 on Monday.
"I think I was playing also earlier this year super tough players, they always went deep in the tournament," Pliskova said, regarding her slow start to the 2021 season. "I think I was close to playing a good level, but somehow I was not able to really win all those matches.
"It's not that I would be playing horrible. Sometimes you're just missing a little bit and you're not doing anything wrong. I think sometimes just to hang in there is super important, which I did."
Deep, clinical returns by Pliskova helped her have opportunities on Sabalenka’s delivery throughout the opening set. The Czech garnered a total of eight break points spanning three of Sabalenka’s service games. However, Sabalenka summoned powerful deliveries to erase all eight of those chances, as getting 71 percent of her first serves into play during the opening frame did not diminish their strength.
After saving those eight break points, Sabalenka got her first chance on the Pliskova serve exactly when she needed to. At 6-5 30-30, the Belarusian moved Pliskova from the net back towards the baseline, then deployed a dropshot winner to claim the rally and earn her first break point of the day -- which doubled as set point. There, Pliskova double faulted at the least opportune time.
"I thought I had so many chances in the first set," Pliskova said. "It's not like I would do something really wrong. I thought especially the last game I could do much better. Not only the double fault, I had two easy shots early in the game. I think I was too much getting frustrated about that I didn't make the chances which I had on her serve."
Pliskova had not lost a set all fortnight until that moment, but despite that, Pliskova continued to press with well-struck returns, and she was finally rewarded with a love break to lead 3-2 in the second set. Pliskova’s service was also impeccable through 5-4, as she dropped just four points on delivery in the second set up to that juncture.
Serving for the set in that game, a winning Sabalenka pass caused Pliskova to face a 0-30 deficit, but forehand winners on three of the next four points gave the Czech the set. For the third time in their three meetings, Pliskova and Sabalenka would settle affairs with a decisive third set.
Pliskova took her shot right away, slamming another stellar return on break point in the first game to take the early lead. That would be all she needed -- aside from set point in the opening set, Pliskova never faced a break point all day. The Czech eased through her remaining service games, and an ace on her first match point put her into the Wimbledon final.
"It was more about, just to be quick, ready, low of course, and to put as many balls back as I can," Pliskova said. "Of course, to hold the serve. To be patient, which is tough, especially for me. But, yeah, worked out in the end."
Pliskova will have to beat the top two seeds in succession if she is to claim her first Grand Slam title, as World No.1 Ashleigh Barty awaits in the final, following the Aussie’s semifinal victory over 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber. Barty leads their head-to-head by 5-2.
"It can't be any better than that," Pliskova said, looking forward to the final. "You want to play the best player in the final. Of course, I don't want anybody else but [Barty] there."
"We had some good matches," Pliskova continued. "Of course, I lost a couple times, but I think she has an extremely difficult game to play. It's going to be difficult on grass because of her slice and just her game overall.
"It's a final. Anything can happen. I know she has a Grand Slam, but also for her it's the first Wimbledon final. I think we both have good chances. It's going to be hopefully a good match to watch as well because with her it's always interesting. We're going to see what's going to happen."