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Big occasion, bigger game: Pliskova’s power, placement stun Serena

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Yes, Serena Williams’ left knee wasn’t in very good shape Thursday night during her U.S. Open women’s semifinal match against Karolina Pliskova.

Yes, Serena grimaced late in the match and didn’t have the spring, explosiveness or confidence she needed to hit her best serves and returns.

Yes, the schedule played a role in shaping the outcome — if Serena had another 24 hours to recover, chances are she would have been more engaged in the first set.

Yes, Serena was all class in her presser, shrugging off her injury and the scheduling, being generous toward opponents in the latter half of her career, a marked departure from her early-twentysomething years. One should straightforwardly appreciate Serena’s sportsmanship and simultaneously realize that by taking the high road, she downplayed issues which had a lot to do with the unfolding of Thursday’s match inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Yet, for all the ways in which this match was affected by external factors, there is always something pure and clean about tennis, this solo sport without in-match coaching (at least, according to the rulebook):

No matter how compromised the opponent might be on the other side of the net, it’s up to the individual to do what lies within her (or his) control.

Karolina Pliskova’s job was not to wonder how well Serena could move, or serve, or return. It was not her job to wonder how gracious Patrick Mouratoglou (who told ESPN before the match that Serena’s physiotherapists had done a great job preparing the [soon-to-be-former] World. No. 1 for this semifinal) would be to her.

It was not Pliskova’s job to think about her eight-hour rest advantage, or the fact that she moved through her quarterfinal with relative ease, while Serena received a taxing battle from Simona Halep which depleted her resources.

Pliskova’s job on Thursday night at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center was to pound serves into corners of the box.

Her job was to pounce on any short balls she received after Serena retrieved some of her bigger first serves.

Her job was to do reasonably well — not spectacularly well, just something better than mediocre — in longer rallies, and move well enough to deny Serena the ability to gain supreme confidence from the backcourt.

Pliskova’s job — having saved a match point in the fourth round against Venus Williams — was to turn that survival of the crucible of competition into a transformative moment, much as Angelique Kerber (soon to be the World No. 1 in place of Serena) used a match-point save against Misaki Doi in the Australian Open as the moment which changed her career (and accordingly, her life).

Pliskova’s job was to apply her very big game to a very big occasion, to show that after the light went on in Cincinnati (much as it did for Kerber in Melbourne earlier this year), it could stay on at a major tournament, especially against the best player of this century and, quite possibly, the whole of human history.

No matter what smoke, noise and uncertainty flowed from Serena and her camp — and the atrocious reality of U.S. Open (and modern sports) scheduling — Pliskova had to perform.

No one disputes this, because no one can dispute this.

In tennis, a player can’t control what her (or his) opponent does. Sometimes, this is the source of great frustration. Consider Andy Murray playing a top-class Wimbledon semifinal in 2015 and still getting wiped off the court in straight sets because Roger Federer entered and stayed in “God Mode.” (The same was true for Federer in 2014, when he committed only 17 unforced errors, but Marin Cilic played ridiculously well.)

On other occasions, however, the uncontrollable actions of an opponent place a different sort of pressure on an athlete. This was not a case of an opponent playing untouchable tennis. In this case, the opponent — Serena — was injured but tenacious, compromised but determined. Serena could have faded as her body did, but she pushed Pliskova to the edge in an error-filled but supremely riveting second set. Most points might not have been very long, but they required total concentration and the ability to block out the oppressive nerves in a theater soaked with suffocating pressure.

To the very end, Karolina Pliskova was not an emotionless robot. She displayed, with a number of double faults in the latter stages of the second set, how much she felt the moment and knew what was at stake. In accordance with any player who plays a big game, Pliskova simply needed to crush enough winners and aces to overcome the mistakes and the doubles.

To the very end, Pliskova did exactly that.

Pliskova held up in longer rallies far better than most expected. She painted a perfect portrait of a player who did what was within her control, not worrying too much about externals, especially Serena's health. -- Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Pliskova held up in longer rallies far better than most expected. She painted a perfect portrait of a player who did what was within her control, not worrying too much about externals, especially Serena’s health. — Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

After a remarkable display of defense at the baseline in the 5-all point of the second-set tiebreaker — the kind of point champions win — Pliskova watched Serena double fault on match point, giving the 24-year-old Czech a chance to play for her first major title… against the same woman she defeated in Cincinnati, to (most ironically) enable Serena to tie Steffi Graf with 186 consecutive weeks as the World No. 1.

Because Pliskova maintained her poise so marvelously — controlling only what she herself could control — Serena’s consecutive weeks streak at No. 1 won’t reach 187.

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When Roberta Vinci authored one of the most memorable and remarkable upsets in the history of tennis a year ago against Serena in another U.S. Open semifinal, a crafty veteran in her 30s found the wisdom and patience needed to topple a giant with an off-pace game.

This upset by Pliskova could be seen as similar, in the sense that a player who had never reached a major final found a way to obtain that milestone against great odds. Yet, in most ways, this achievement is profoundly different. Pliskova is still on the sunshine side of 25 — closer to age 20 than age 30. Whereas Vinci found a ray of golden autumnal sunshine before the end of her career — which is not that far away — Pliskova has unearthed the poise and clarity which always served as the fundamental impediment to her development on tour.

In the present moment, this is a single shining night of magic for Pliskova, something which has not been duplicated at the majors. However, unlike Vinci, Pliskova has many more tomorrows ahead of her as a tennis player.

Big occasion, bigger game? This could be the start of something very big for Karolina Pliskova, the second-biggest breakthrough story in women’s tennis in 2016.

She’ll play the No. 1 breakthrough artist — and the eventual No. 1 player — on the WTA Tour this year in Saturday’s final.

Angelique Kerber will be intent on handing out a platter of revenge, but don’t expect Karolina Pliskova to care. The tunnel-vision focus which had eluded her for so long is now within her possession.

When huge weapons are finely harnessed by the mind, a tennis player can do anything. Serena Jameka Williams has embodied this truth time and again for nearly two full resplendent decades.

No one knows if this is the Karolina Pliskova who will show up in 2017 and beyond, but in this American summer of 2016, she has at least given herself a chance to see how far her mind — no longer haunted by demons, no longer stuffed with fears — can carry her howitzer serves and groundstrokes.

Big occasion, bigger game: Pliskova’s power, placement stun Serena
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