It is the most centrally and commonly exasperating aspect of professional tennis — not tennis in general, but the sport at its greatest height: Why can’t a player get out of her (or his) own way, enabling considerable talent to spill out in full flower when a moment matters most?
Hackers — you and I — don’t possess great talent. When we mess up at the public park on a Saturday morning, there is no great consequence. Nothing of value is being lost… unless we were foolish enough to bet $10,000 on the outcome of a three-set match with a friend or neighborhood rival.
In the world of professional tennis, however, the stakes are always high. The challenger circuit doesn’t involve lots of dollars, but the need to climb out of tennis’s minor leagues and reach the main draws of major tournaments (and the Premier/Masters tiers) is profound. The qualifying rounds at various tournaments also don’t award large prizes to the competitors, but as gateways to the main draws, they mean something. Earlier this year at the Madrid Open, two women — Louisa Chirico and Patricia Maria Tig — survived the quallies and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals, pocketing significant paychecks to cover an expansive amount of expenses for the coming months. At the lower levels of pro tennis, everything matters.
How much more it is the case at the top tier of the sport.
Karolina Pliskova is one of dozens of players on both tours who is not hurting for money. If a player makes — for example — the third round of a major on a consistent basis, s/he is making roughly six figures in U.S. dollars. Major-tournament prize money has grown a lot over the past decade, and in the past five years, early-round loser’s checks have soared in value. Pliskova’s collected a lot of those paychecks over time, but that counterintuitively ushers us to the main point of this piece:
Whereas every pro tennis match matters at the lower tiers of competition because of the need to survive and climb into the safe harbor of tour-level main draws, every pro match matters in the major leagues because of the thirst for championships, legacies, and the personal satisfaction of knowing you’re in the arena against the very best, with an opportunity to be remembered in the history books — if only for a sentence. (Serena Williams gets books. Angelique Kerber has probably earned a chapter, or something close to it.)
Athletes — once they attain a certain degree of professional success — don’t need to worry about making enough money to live comfortably for a long time (provided their spending, saving and investment habits are reasonably prudent). After crossing a given earnings threshold, matches matter most as tests of self, verdicts — not binding, but revealing — on psychological readiness, physical stamina, and mental acuity. After meandering through the formative years of life on tour — in which uncertainty is the theme of most days and a tennis game develops in accordance with a young and growing body — players eventually learn what they do well, what they don’t, and what the X-factor is in their attempt to become great.
For Karolina Pliskova — as was the case with Angelique Kerber before 2016 — the need to allow talent to emerge has always been the X-factor. It wasn’t so much the shot selection or the technique or the ability to hit a clean ball; it was the need to clear the mind and respond positively to crunch-time situations.
This is not a rarity in tennis; it’s a pervasive reality for a good number of players in the top 50. Anyone who watches an appreciable amount of year-round tennis beyond the three or four superstars of any given era comes to realize how many “woulda, coulda, shoulda” players exist on both tours. These are the women and men who clearly have major-winning (or at least major semifinal) talent, but can’t perform in the most significant matches on the calendar. Whenever the call to greatness — to make a deep run at a major — is heard, these players become paralyzed rather than running to the source of the call.
This was true for Kerber before 2016 began. It was true for Pliskova before the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Then, while much of the WTA was recovering from the Olympics, Pliskova — who trained in quietude while some of her peers chased a medal in Rio — clearly fine-tuned her game in a meaningful way. When live (yellow, fuzzy) bullets were flying in Cincinnati, Pliskova accessed a level of preparedness which had very rarely characterized her in previous tournaments of note. When Kerber — one win from the World No. 1 ranking — stood on the opposite side of the net in the Cincinnati final, Pliskova was ready. She won, a development partly made possible by the Olympics (and the disruptive influence they had on the flow of the tour this summer), but partly created by a breakthrough in terms of getting out of her own way.
The light went on for Pliskova in Cincinnati. The question coming into New York for the U.S. Open: Would it stay on?
Let’s acknowledge that one ascendant week does not a transformation make. Tennis demands that players back up one good tournament with another. Since we’ve referenced the Olympics, let’s point out that gold medalist Monica Puig immediately crashed out of the U.S. Open. If you’ve seen the “flourish in one event, tumble in the next” dynamic of tennis tournaments once, you’ve seen it a million times. Pliskova could have chosen to bask in the glow of Cincinnati… or she could have chosen to build on that performance in New York.
After her third-set tiebreaker win over Venus Williams in the fourth round of the U.S. Oopen on Monday afternoon, it’s clear that Pliskova has reached a new level of toughness — maybe not something which will endure on a long-term basis, but certainly a quality which has never previously existed to such an abundant degree.
The light finally went on for Pliskova — not because she won, but because she won by overcoming herself.
Pliskova’s nerves are a well-documented albatross, the part of her game which has restricted her development over the years. Her penchant for flinching in high-leverage moments is why — despite making good money from this sport — the Czech, who will turn 25 next March, had never made the fourth round of a major heading into this tournament.
Given that her first-ever fourth-rounder came in Arthur Ashe Stadium against Venus Williams, who was heartily supported by the American crowd when the match got tense, Pliskova faced a stern test — not just from Venus, but from her own psyche. Pliskova had to wonder:
If the match starts poorly, can I come back?
If the match continues to flow in a negative direction, early in the second set, can I hang on and wait for my opportunity?
If I get into a high-wire final-set situation, will I keep my head?
Not only did Pliskova answer these questions in the affirmative; she came up with one of the most steely and resolute responses to adversity that one can possibly imagine.
Think of all the stomach-punch plot twists which can unfold in a match. Given that the U.S. Open is the only major tournament in the world to have a final-set tiebreak, one of the worst feelings at this event is for a player to either flub a final-set breaker, to lose serve when having a chance to avoid a final-set breaker.
Pliskova, serving in the third set at 6-5, 40-love, missed five straight first serves and lost five straight points to enable Venus to break back. A full 12 years younger than her opponent; playing an American in the largest tennis stadium on the planet; and having just squandered three match points with her cannon of a serve, Pliskova could have shriveled. No one would have been surprised; many surely expected it.
Instead, Pliskova gave almost nothing away, playing a strong breaker and allowing Venus to implode.
She has the money and doesn’t need to worry about it. She entered this match as the U.S. Open’s No. 10 seed. She’s climbed so much higher than 99 percent of other women’s tennis professionals. Yet, Karolina Pliskova’s career resume was conspicuously barren. After a few years of acute failure at the highest levels of tennis (not the 95 percent which elevates a player into the third round, but the 5 percent of players who compete for late-stage berths at majors), Karolina Pliskova made another charge up the hill, trying to get the formula right, trying to show that what happened in Cincinnati was not an isolated oddity caused by the Olympics, but a foundation for something bigger and more substantial.
Losing three match points on serve and getting broken in front of a crowd which was cheering for her opponent? It was easy to doubt Karolina Pliskova once again, just as it’s been easy to doubt her over the past few years.
Had Pliskova rolled past Venus the way Marat Safin crushed Pete Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open final, it would have been a satisfying victory, but it would have been couched in terms of “talented player rides hot hand.” Being in “the zone” is a great feeling to experience, but it’s a sensation in which everything goes right.
The greatest personal triumph for a tennis player is when s/he is able to win in the face of pronounced adversity. Pliskova will remember this match against Venus Williams far more than if she had won it with a routine 2-and-3 scoreline.
It’s not just the winning which matters — and should feel very substantive — for Pliskova.
Winning achieved by overcoming is what could make this match, this tournament, and this late American summer such a special one for a player who might be on the verge of becoming a much more regular quarterfinalist (and beyond) at tennis’s most significant tournaments.
Also on Monday at the USTA National Tennis Center:
— Juan Martin del Potro advanced to his first major quarterfinal since Wimbledon of 2013 when Dominic Thiem retired. Thiem, as everyone in tennis knows, has to schedule far more responsibly in 2017 and beyond if he wants to compete at the majors.
— Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka advanced — Wawrinka in spite of a third-set brain cramp — to create a tasty round of eight on the men’s side. Wawrinka will play Delpo. Nishikori’s opponent was not determined at press time.
— Serena Williams and Simona Halep won fourth-round matches in straights to set up a box-office quarterfinal on Wednesday. (ESPN obviously won’t have Darren Cahill on the call for that one.)