World No 2 Karolina Pliskova became the latest high profile seed to fall at the Australian Open on Saturday, ousted by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first match at Rod Laver Arena.
I don’t know what to say; I’m still in the match, still focusing on the next point. To beat Karolína for the first time, it’s amazing. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
After 4 days of action here in Melbourne, all top 10 seeds in the women’s draw had made it through to the 3rd round, the first time this has happened at the Australian Open since 2007.
By the end of Day 5, however, seeds No 3, 8 and 10 had all crashed out on a chaotic, yet exciting, Friday at Melbourne Park.
Defending champion Naomi Osaka was sent packing by 15-year-old Coco Gauff, Serena Williams’ quest for an all-time record-equalling 24th Grand Slam was halted by China’s No 1 Wang Qiang, while Madison Keys, who had made the Australian Open second week on each of her previous 4 appearances, fell to Greece’s Maria Sakkari.
Now Pliskova’s 7-6(4) 7-6(3) edgy loss has added to the dramatic exits of former champions Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki, amongst others.
An off-kilter Pliskova, the No 2 seed, met her fateful defeat after a fluctuating battle with Pavlyuchenkova lasting 2 hours and 25 minutes, while AO2016 winner Angelique Kerber and 2018 finalist Simona Halep sidestepped the mayhem to advance.
Kerber overcame Camila Giorgi 6-2 6-7(4) 6-3 at Margaret Court Arena, while Halep had the cleanest passage, 6-1 6-4, over Yulia Putintseva.
All credit to Pavlyuchenkova, who managed to find her way through 2 tense tiebreaks to advance into the 2nd week for the 3rd time in 4 years.
“I don’t know what to say; I’m still in the match, still focusing on the next point,” said the amped-up Russian, now coached by Sam Sumyk, who guided Victoria Azarenka to the title here in 2012-13.
“To beat Karolína for the first time, it’s amazing.”
A semi-finalist in Melbourne last year, Pliskova was yet to drop at set this fortnight and came into the match on a 6 match winning streak after starting the season with a 3rd Brisbane International title.
The match began in unusual fashion as the self-styled Ace Queen was made to battle through a 30-point opening service game, one that lasted 12 deuces and forced her to save 6 break points.
While Pavlyuchenkova didn’t win that battle, she proved game for more as she took a 4-1 lead in a face-off between former AO junior champions and formidable ball strikers.
She then became wasteful on big points, which kept Pliskova in the contest, and the tall Czech levelled for 4-all but couldn’t maintain momentum, squandering no less than 5 break opportunities that would have put her 6-5 ahead and in the lead for the first time.
In the tiebreak, it was Pavlyuchenkova who had to overcome a 0-2 deficit, finally clinching a marathon 75-minute opener when Pliskova put a limp forehand in the net.
The Russian kept up her momentum early in the second, breaking to open and holding on for a 3-1 lead.
With a double break deficit looking possible, Pliskova replied with a running backhand down the line and levelled the set in the very next game.
At 3-3, Pliskova again threatened to pick up her flagging confidence and somehow crash through but after Pavlyuchenkova, a former World No 13, saved 2 set points late in the set, she saved her best tennis for the breaker to advance.
Power won the day for Pavlyuchenkova, who struck a whopping 51 winners while only hitting 43 unforced errors, an impressive ratio for a player going for that much off the ground.
Pliskova maintained a positive differential as well, striking 35 winners to 29 unforced errors, but managed just 6 aces and couldn’t take advantage of her rival’s sometimes-inconsistent serve.
Standing between Pavlyuchenkova and a 3rd Australian Open quarter-final is the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.
Now 28, Pavlyuchenkova is still trying to live up to the stellar predictions made of her as a junior after she won the girls’ singles title here in 2006 at the age of 14.
Her opponent in that final was Caroline Wozniacki, so the Dane’s retirement on Friday had particular resonance.
“I still see my picture and it’s a strange feeling,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “I still remember, it was a special moment, but it makes me feel, ‘Damn, how old am I?’
“And beating Caroline in the final, and she retired yesterday. Everybody has their own story and their own way I guess.
“I still have energy, ambitions, motivation, I’m hungry, I want to achieve bigger things. It’s a marathon and I started my marathon really, really slow and maybe she sprinted right away.”
Meanwhile, saddled with the tag of the best player without a major title, 27-year-old Pliskova will carry that dubious honour into a 32nd Grand Slam, disappointing herself against an opponent who had taken a set from the rangy Czech in 6 previous meetings.
“I can play good one match but not really four, five in a row so far,” she said. “Of course it’s more pressure here so I think everybody can feel it.
“I think it’s just about handling these things and to move on. And there is going to be more tries, so let’s see if I can do better.”
Pliskova was not happy at all with her performance, adding: “I think she was playing very well today.
“But let’s say I was about 40 per cent today of my game, so of course then she can feel so much better if I just don’t play enough what I can play.”
Angelique Kerber, the No 17 seed, is coming off an indifferent year but romped to a 6-2 first set against the volatile Italian Camila Giorgi, who bashed her way into the 2nd set breaker, which she took, 7-4, contributing to the German’s frustration.
The World No 102 couldn’t sustain her barrage, however, and finished with 65 unforced errors after Kerber made a comfortable early break for 3-1 and maintained her advantage to enter the round of 16 at Melbourne Park for a 5th time.
“It was a really tough battle, I started really well but she came back really strong,” said Kerber. “It’s still a long way to go, I need to keep fighting.
“I’m enjoying playing here and being here,” she told the crowd at Margaret Court Arena.
The 28-year-old Giorgi refused to go quietly in a sunny and hot Melbourne.
Former World No 1 Kerber saved 3 break points to grimly hold serve in the 3rd game of the deciding set and then broke the Italian for a 3-1 lead, bbut Giorgi wrestled the break back, leaving a disgruntled Kerber muttering to herself on her chair at the changeover.
Whatever she said to herself, it worked, Kerber breaking again for 5-3 before serving out a tough contest in 2 hours and 8 minutes.
Simona Halep, now the second favourite behind top seed Ash Barty for the title, had her easiest win so far over the No 38 Putintseva, who was showing the effects of an emotional 3-set upset of 2019 semi-finalist Danielle Collins.
The Romanian eased into the next round after dispatching the in-form Kazahk in straight sets, 6-1 6-4 in an hour 18 minutes.
“I expected this kind of match,” Halep told the media. “I knew how she’s playing, but she played a little bit stronger with the forehand than I expected.
“I knew that I had to attack her serve, to serve well, because she’s hitting the return well.
“I think I have improved in my serve. Also the return looks pretty good. I go to the net. I have some dropshots included in my game, so it’s a big step. I’m happy with my game.”
The Wimbledon champion next faces No 16 seed Elise Mertens, who tussled with American CiCi Bellis but came through easily in the end, 6-1 6-7(5) 6-0, after a minute short of 2 hours.
“I’m ready,” said the Romanian, upset by Serena Williams in the 4th round here last January, when she was the World No 1.
“Really, really happy that I’m in the second week now.”
No 28 seed Anett Kontaveit needed just 49 minutes to cruise into the 4th round of the Australian Open for the 2nd time in 3 years, dispatching No 6 seed Belinda Bencic in straight sets, 6-0 6-1.
It was a nearly perfect performance by the World No 31, who used her hard-hitting game to clock 21 winners.
The Estonian No 1 also kept her game extremely tidy, with only 7 unforced errors in the tilt, and she never faced a break point in the match.
Bencic, who notched her 100th career main-draw hard-court victory with her 2nd-round win, could only muster up 40 percent of points when she was serving, and her 18 unforced errors outpaced her 11 winners.
Kontaveit will try to claim her first Grand Slam quarter-final appearance when she faces rising Polish teenager Iga Swiatek in the round of 16.
Swiatek,18, upset No 19 seed Donna Vekic in straight sets later on Saturday, 7-5 6-3.