Technically, Karolina Pliskova was the higher seed entering this match. However, no one else is ever really the favorite against Serena Williams. That, indeed, is always reflected in the betting odds. Williams’ seed is often lower than it should be due to her abbreviated schedule. Add in the fact that she still missed the beginning of the 2018 season (including the Australian Open) after her pregnancy, and it’s easy to realize that Serena’s No. 16 seed is a little misleading. Serena Williams is always the favorite when she steps on the tennis court, no matter what rankings say.
No one seemed to tell Karolina Pliskova that, though. The Czech, who reached World No. 1 in 2017, is no stranger to success either. She has never won a Major, but did reach the 2016 US Open final. She hasn’t been the most consistent since then, but Pliskova is one of the most powerful players in the sport. When her game is on, it’s on. And, unfortunately for Serena Williams, Pliskova’s game was on today.
Neither player started off so locked in, but Williams made mistakes while Pliskova didn’t. The American hit more winners, but she also hit more errors. More important, though, was when those errors came. Williams struggled in her second service game–with some speculation that the sun was a factor–and eventually gave away a break to the Czech. Pliskova, for her own part, was utterly dominant on serve. Williams was never able to get into a single service game of hers. In fact, the only Pliskova service game to even reach deuce was her first one. After that, her serve was untouchable. That meant that the lone early break that Serena gave up was decisive in the set. Pliskova held serve throughout, and won the first set 64.
Pliskova looked to quickly put her foot down on the match, opening up a break point in the opening game of the set. Williams managed to hold with some inspired serving, and it looked like the 23-time Major champion was about to raise her level. Pliskova, though, never let Williams get any real rhythm. Her service games were still untouchable, which was clearly frustrating Williams. Serena again raised her level when facing a break point at 2-2, but Pliskova had an answer for everything that Williams could do. Serena saved one break point, but couldn’t save the second. Pliskova now had a 3-2 lead, and was untroubled on serve all match.
Williams had seemed to struggle, just a tiny bit, all match. She hit a few too many errors, and she looked just a tad fatigued all match. That makes sense, though–she was coming off a physically and emotionally draining battle against Simona Halep. Still, Williams is an all-time great for a reason. So, to no one’s surprise, Serena took advantage of a few Pliskova mistakes and broke at love to get back to 3-3.
The 37-year-old American then held in her next service game, and all of a sudden she seemed back in control. Pliskova, though, wasn’t going to back down. She hit four big serves to hold at love, but couldn’t do the same in her next game. She managed to start with a 40-15 lead, but then she blinked. Williams forced it to deuce, and finally managed to pull her way out of a marathon game. Williams picked up the break, and took the set 64.
Pliskova didn’t falter to start the third set, even if some might have expected it. She put pressure on Serena in the opening service, and she seemed to intentionally avoid the Williams backhand. Serena was more prone to errors on the forehand, and the backhand is what allowed the American to control rallies late in the second set. Pliskova couldn’t get the break, but held serve easily right after. She couldn’t do the same in her next service game, though, and Williams broke for a 3-1 lead. Serena put her foot down in the next service game, and it looked like she would survive another three-setter in Melbourne. The match looked all but assured when Williams picked up another break for a 5-1 lead.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Williams twisted her ankle in the next service game, and got broken for 5-2 after having a match point. Some big serves led to a good hold, and Serena was clearly struggling to serve with whatever happened to her ankle. A break to love, and all of a sudden Pliskova was serving at 4-5 with a chance to level the match. The Czech got a drop loose in that game, and allowed Williams to open up a 15-40 lead. She saved those two match points, then a third, before holding for 5-5.
Williams looked entirely rattled. Maybe it was the ankle, maybe it was fear of the ankle, or maybe it was something else. Serena threw in a few more double faults over the final few games, and Pliskova broke to love for a 6-5 lead. One last hold later, and Pliskova completed the comeback. She won the final six games of the match for a 64 46 75 victory over the all-time great.
Pliskova will move on to face Naomi Osaka in the semifinals. Osaka, who won her first Major last year at the US Open, will be looking to become women’s tennis’ first back-to-back Slam winner since Serena won four straight in 2014-2015. Osaka and Pliskova can each become World No. 1 by winning the title in Melbourne. (Osaka can also become World No. 1 if Danielle Collins wins the title.) Either way, though, this is a big accomplishment for Pliskova, who has struggled in Slams in recent years.
For Serena, this match has to hurt. The American has been so close to catching Margaret Court‘s all-time record of 24 singles Slams. She has been just one Major shy since her win at the 2017 Australian Open. Since then, she has had her absence with pregnancy and her comeback. The chase will have to continue for at least one more Slam; we’ll see if she can catch Court at the French Open.
Embed from Getty Images