Karolina Pliskova could be the next big thing in women tennis

Feb 20, 2017
Czech Republic tennis star Karolina Pliskova is the player to watch in international women tennis circuit this year.
Czech Republic tennis star Karolina Pliskova is the player to watch in international women tennis circuit this year.

Karolina Pliskova – all 6-foot-1 of her – promises to be the next big thing in tennis.

In fact, she might already be there.

In a giddy span of three weeks late last summer, Pliskova defeated Angelique Kerber in the Cincinnati final to deny the German the No. 1 ranking, then stunned Serena Williams in the US Open semifinals to end Williams’ run as the top-ranked player after 186 consecutive weeks.

Then, in about a day’s time in Doha, the hard-serving Czech Republic player made more personal history by winning the Qatar Total Open, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in Saturday’s final, 6-3, 6-4.

Pliskova, who collected her eighth title overall and her second premier crown of the year, had lost all three of their previous matches.

In the Friday semifinal, she upended Dominka Cibuilkova, another player against whom she had been 0-for-3.

“I was definitely trying to change the last matches I played with them,” Pliskova said, laughing, in a conversation with ESPN.com.

“To get those wins against Domi and Caro, you have to fight for it. I always believed I could do it.”

That belief has carried her to the world’s No. 3 ranking.

With all due respect to Kerber, going forward, Pliskova poses the greatest threat to Williams – and everyone else, too.

Pliskova, who turns 25 next month, is more than four years younger than Kerber and a full decade behind Serena.

The only younger players in the WTA’s top 10 are Garbine Muguruza, 23, and American Madison Keys, who celebrated her 22nd birthday Friday.

“I think I’ve just grown mentally a little bit,” she explained.

“I needed time for a few things to settle the last two or three years. The movement and physical things, everything is a little bit improving. Having so many good matches, the confidence is going up.”

That the No. 2-seeded Pliskova served only four aces against Wozniacki was not surprising.

In this rain-swept tournament, she and Wozniacki both had to play their quarterfinal and semifinal matches Friday.

That meant both were playing their third match in two days.

In today’s game, serving usually reigns supreme. Serena Williams’ dominance can be traced to her serve, widely viewed as the game’s greatest ever.

Among current players, it’s Pliskova who possesses that most dangerous weapon.

She won 84% of her first-serve points in upsetting Williams, who struggled with injuries, in the US Open semifinals.

In her second match Friday, Pliskova stroked a personal high of 21 aces, the third 20-plus ace match of her career.

She has hit a WTA-leading 138 so far in 2017. Pliskova has led the WTA in aces the past two years, with 517 in 2015 and another 530 in 2016.

Aces run in the family: At last year’ Australian Open, twin sister Kristyna fired 31 in a loss to Monica Puig, setting the all-time WTA record.

“My serve, it’s really important for me,” Karolina said.

“I’m not the one who should be running. I need a serve like this to take advantage of the points and dictate the games.”

Although Pliskova lost to Kerber in that US Open final, it went three sets.

This, after a string of 17 majors appearances in which she never got past the third round.

The momentum continued this January, when Pliskova won the title in Brisbane and advanced to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, before losing there to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.

There is no reason to think Pliskova won’t compete for the titles later this year at Wimbledon and the US Open.

After trading coaches with fellow Czech Petra Kvitova, she now has David Kotyza, a two-time Wimbledon champion coach, on her team.

Pliskova remains a big part of the Czech Republic’s stranglehold on the Fed Cup title.

They have won the title for three consecutive years and five of six.

In the short term, Pliskova seems destined to make women’s tennis a compelling three-way watch.

Kerber can regain the No. 1 ranking from Serena with a win next week in Dubai, but Kerber’s recent play and history do not inspire optimism.

She lost her first match in Doha to Daria Kasatkina, and the Dubai field is loaded.

Kerber has won only one match in five appearances in Dubai – and Pliskova could well be her opponent in the final.

Williams, who won the season’s first Slam in Melbourne, is not scheduled to play until next month’s event at Indian Wells, where she was a finalist last year.

The first question in Pliskova’s post-match press conference was a bold one: Do you think about No. 1?

Her emphatic answer: No.

More than anything, Pliskova said, she wants to win that first Grand Slam.

“I think it’s still one step forward for me,” she told ESPN.com. “I was in the (US Open) final. I’m just going to try to get there. Eventually I know I can.”

Younger players, when they get close to No. 1, sometimes stumble.

Both Muguruza and Simona Halep reached No. 2, but have yet to make the final breakthrough.

Why, Pliskova, was asked, won’t it happen to her?

“Well,” she said after a thoughtful pause, “I have a different game than most of the players. Serena is tough to beat, to get over her in the rankings is hard. One year, I believe, she won’t be there. Obviously, there are different players coming up, but right now I’m not thinking about the rankings. I don’t even know if I’m 2 – or 3.

“Yes, No. 1 would be different, but that is not for now. Later, I think there is a good chance.” – ESPN