MELBOURNE, Australia - As far as former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova is concerned, the best part of her Australian Open quarterfinal came before she even took the court against 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
“I think the biggest win against her for me is that I believed I could win this match,” she admitted after saving four match points for a dramatic 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 comeback. “That's how I started the match actually. I got my chance. I just went for it. I think maybe she didn't expect it from the beginning. I think that was the biggest victory for me today.”
Pliskova last defeated Williams at the 2016 US Open - having already beaten sister Venus two rounds earlier - to reach her first Grand Slam final. For the Brisbane International champion riding a 10-match winning streak, that moment can’t compete with Wednesday’s win.
“I think she played much better than how she was playing when I beat her in New York. This match was so much better. There were more mistakes in that one, and maybe she was nervous because it was in the States.”
They met again in Flushing Meadows last summer, where Williams avenged the 2016 loss after a slow start. Pliskova had struggled up to that point in the season, but came alive after leaving the States, winning her second title of 2018 at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and clinching a late berth to the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, where she reached the semifinals.
“I always want to give myself a chance to beat anybody, doesn't matter who is across the net. I was feeling confident all week and half here, so there was no reason why I should for, one moment, think I could not beat her. I know she was playing great all of her matches - I was watching little bit - but my game was different than the players which she played before me.”
A self-described WTA superfan, Pliskova likely saw Williams overcome top seed and World No.1 Simona Halep, who relies more on speed than a booming serve, the likes of which the three-time WTA Ace leader possesses.
“I know she can struggle a little bit with a game where somebody is putting pressure on her, too, because she can hold her serve quite easily. If I can hold my serve too, there was always going to be a chance.”
That blunt confidence comes not just from the match-up, but also from the strength of a coalescing coaching team that currently includes former WTA stars Rennae Stubbs and Conchita Martinez. Combined, they have fine-tuned Pliskova’s game to a hitherto unheard frequency; against Williams and two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza, she struck just 18 unforced errors in two matches.
“I feel I'm not doing very stupid mistakes. I'm just taking care of the balls which are in the middle of the court, around the service line. I think it has something to do with my legs, so I'm more ready for these short balls.
“We've been practicing that a lot, because sometimes after a great serve, I was just sleeping, not getting ready for the ball, not getting there enough on time. I can hit big, so there's going to be always these balls somewhere around service line and I have to take care of these.”
Cerebral in a way that belies her straightforward on-court strategy, Pliskova is at last psychologically prepared to transcend the pitfalls of her high-risk game, allowing her to be even more aggressive than ever before.
“I don't see any reason why I should really do mistakes. Of course, somebody is going to put pressure on you, so then you might make some mistakes. That's normal. But from myself, while I can be still nervous, I feel like I can control my hands better in this tournament, and I can control the mistakes.”
A fast-talking realist, Pliskova can’t convince herself of anything she doesn’t believe to be true, but as she continues to fire off all cylinders, that belief will remain as she prepares for a semifinal encounter with reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
“I think I'm feeling confident, not in every situation, but about my tennis overall. I feel like I have weapons. It's not that I have only, I don't know, forehand or serve, but I feel like I have more things. I don't see any reason why I should be scared; of course, I can be nervous, but this is different than scared. But especially since I beat so many good players already, I know I can do it again.
“I'm pretty confident that, if I'm playing well that I can beat anybody. I don't want to be overconfident right now because I beat Serena, but that's how it is. Most of the time I was not playing well, and that's why I lost.
“Already last year I was feeling better at Grand Slams. This time I just feel somehow different and more confident. I'm not doubting myself if I win or if I lose, whatever. I just feel good.”