For the Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova, the 2021 season was all about perseverance. The World No.4 overcame a slow start to the season to find her form on clay, broke through to her first Wimbledon final and rediscovered the top-level consistency that has been the hallmark of her career. When all was said and done, she qualified for her fifth consecutive Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara.
Preaching patience through slow start, new coach
Pliskova came into the 2021 season ranked No.6 and with a new coaching team in place. After teaming with Dani Vallverdu and Olga Savchuk for the 2020 season, Pliskova brought on veteran coach Sascha Bajin during the pre-season.
It took time for Pliskova's successful season to get going. Through her first eight tournaments of the year - from Abu Dhabi through Madrid - Pliskova went 10-8 and posted back-to-back wins at just two tournaments.
At the Australian Open, she was upended by her friend and practice partner, Karolina Muchova, losing the last seven games in a 7-5, 7-5 defeat in the third round. In Stuttgart, the Czech served for the win over No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals but lost 2-6, 6-1, 7-5.
While the results were disappointing during the first four months of the season, Pliskova never lost faith in the work she and her team were doing. It was only a matter of time before the margins would shift in her favor.
Return to the Rome final signals a change
Pliskova's patience paid off when the tour returned to Rome. A champion in the Eternal City in 2018 and a finalist in 2020, she saved three match points against Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(1) and advance to her first semifinal of the season. Pliskova could feel her luck beginning to change.
"No matter how much you feel good on the court, if you lose, you know, you can say to yourself that it was incredible, you can say to everybody that I played well, but I lost," Pliskova said in Rome. "I think it doesn't matter in the end how you played. I think it's just important somehow to get the wins. That's the only way you can make the confidence, right?
"I think starting from Stuttgart things were much better. Actually even in Miami I thought I had an unlucky match there, but I just felt much better on the court."
After posting a three-set win over Petra Martic, Pliskova advanced to her third consecutive Rome final. She would have no answers for 2020 Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek, who needed just 46 minutes to rout the Czech, 6-0, 6-0, but Pliskova vowed to take the positives out of her resurgent week.
From Top 10 exit to Wimbledon finalist
Pliskova's relationship to the grass season has always been a complicated one. Her serve and forehand combination as well as her net skills seem built for success on grass. She won Eastbourne twice in 2017 and 2019, Nottingham in 2016, and was a finalist at 2016 Eastbourne and 2015 Birmingham.
But translating her WTA Tour results to Wimbledon had been a struggle. Coming into this year's edition of The Championships, Pliskova had yet to make it past the Round of 16 at the All England Club. In fact, Wimbledon was the only major at which she had yet to make a quarterfinal. On the first Monday of Wimbledon, she dropped out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2016.
Road to WTA Finals, singles
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Road to WTA Finals, doubles
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Pliskova finally snapped the drought after defeating Liudmila Samsonova 6-2, 6-3 in the Round of 16. She followed it up with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Switzerland's Viktorija Golubic to advance to her first Wimbledon semifinal. She did it without losing a set.
"It means a lot, of course," Pliskova said. "Especially after not really having many good weeks before Wimbledon. It feels like a dream a bit. I believed at some point I will find my game. I'm just happy it worked out well in these two weeks. It was my last Grand Slam missing the semifinal, so I'm happy now I have all of them."
Pliskova would cap off her breakthrough Wimbledon campaign with two of the most memorable performances of the season. Facing World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals, Pliskova played a near-perfect match to out-serve the Belarusian and win 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. She would advance to her second major final and first since the 2016 US Open.
Facing World No.1 Barty in the final, Pliskova rebounded from a 0-4 deficit in the first set and 1-3 in the second set to force the first three-set Wimbledon final since 2012. Pliskova's fight-back - she broke the Australian as she served for the title in the second set - won the hearts of the Centre Court crowd. Though she lost 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3, Pliskova received an ovation from the crowd that drove her to tears of gratitude.
I'm so grateful for the moments during these weeks and especially today 💚 Big thanks fo my team for always believe in me no matter what! Thanks to all of you for the support and remember WE NEVER GIVE UP. NEVER pic.twitter.com/QqJ2vujqJG— Karolina Pliskova (@KaPliskova) July 10, 2021
"It's not that I didn't like Wimbledon, but it was never my favorite place," Pliskova said. "I never played well here. I never felt so good here.
"But this time I think it changed a bit the feeling about this tournament, the feeling about the people. I think the atmosphere there was just incredible today.
"I felt actually super good after. On court just to play in front of this crowd, it's something that we play for. We both tried to win so somebody has to lose. You have to accept that. I will definitely. I know how to lose, believe me. I'm so good at that."
Continued success and consistency on summer hardcourts
Pliskova backed up her Wimbledon run in her next WTA tournament in Montreal. In a rematch with Sabalenka in the semifinals, Pliskova again got the better of the World No.2, 6-3, 6-4, to make her third final of the season. Notably, Pliskova joined Barty and Ons Jabeur as the only players to make a final on all three surfaces this season, with Pliskova and Barty doing so at the WTA 1000/Slam level.
Another good week 🇨🇦🍁 Thank you everyone for the support 💗 pic.twitter.com/xNupu3B5br— Karolina Pliskova (@KaPliskova) August 16, 2021
Pliskova lost to Camila Giorgi in the Montreal final, but her consistency continued the following week in Cincinnati. Pliskova posted wins over Yulia Putintseva, Jessica Pegula and Paula Badosa, Pliskova to reach her fourth semifinal of the season before losing to Jil Teichmann.
Now firmly back in the Top 5 for the first time since 2020 Roland Garros, Pliskova carried her form into the US Open, where she had enjoyed her most consistent success. There she set the tournament's ace record (24) in the second round in a match-point saving effort against Amanda Anisimova, winning 7-5, 6-7(5), 7-6(7). The Czech went on to make her fourth quarterfinal in New York, where she bowed out to Maria Sakkari.
Pliskova's US Open run secured a qualifying spot into her fifth consecutive WTA Finals, the longest active qualifying streak on tour. After going starting the season with a 10-8 record, Pliskova would go 25-10 for the remainder of the season, finishing with a 35-18 record.