It has been cloudy and rainy in New York but, for Aryna Sabalenka, the conditions didn’t matter on Wednesday afternoon in Arthur Ashe Stadium, as she found her mojo against Karolina Pliskova, and produced one of the best performances of her season to beat the tall Czech, 6-1 7-6(4), to reach the semi-finals of the US Open for a second time.
After this season, when I was struggling with a lot of things and I couldn't play my best, but still I was there, I was fighting, and right now, again, I'm in the semi-final, and I have zero expectation for myself. It's going to be tough, and I know I have to really work hard for this win. Now I will just go there and fight for every point. Aryna Sabalenka
“I think I start really well, and the first set was really high level for me, and put a lot of pressure on her,” Sabalenka told reporters later. “First set was really great.
“In the second set, I knew she will, kind of, trying to come back, and she will do better.
“I just tried to hold my serve, and try to put her under pressure on her serve.”
It took the Belarusian 6th seed an hour and 21 minutes to dispatch Pliskova, seeded 22 here and the 2016 runner-up at Flushing Meadows.
The Belarusian had underestimated the Czech in their two meetings last year, when Pliskova defeated her in the Wimbledon and Montreal semi-finals, but she was in dominant form in New York as she fired down 7 aces and never dropped her serve.
“Always tough matches against Karolina,” said Sabalenka. “The first set was really high level for me and [I] put a lot of pressure on her.”
Sabalenka, who stands at 6 foot tall and stormed through the opener in less than half an hour, says she completely remodelled her serve before arriving in New York, adding another member to her coaching staff in order to change ‘biomechanic stuff’.
“Right now I’m not going for aces, I’m just trying to put my serve on the big targets,” she said. “I’m ready for another fight, and I think I just have to stay focused on myself.”
Nothing went right for Pliskova during the first set, as she racked up 15 unforced errors and 5 double-faults, but the Czech’s form improved considerably in the second, in which she fended off the only break point she faced in the 8th game.
Pliskova, who had appeared to be in good form after taking down two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka in the 4th-round, told reporters later that she had little explanation for her struggles in the first set.
“I was not playing at all the way I was playing the last couple of matches, especially the last one with Azarenka,” she said. “She [Sabalenka] was playing super-aggressive, serving amazing today.
“I think I never play her in this kind of shape.”
Double-faults defined the early going as Pliskova coughed up 3 in her first two service games, and lost both of them, as Sabalenka ran out to a 4-0 lead before the Czech finally held.
Sabalenka broke Pliskova for the third time to take the first set, when the Czech player struck two more double-faults and the 6th seed fired off off 3 stunning forehands, finishing the opener with 10 winners, which was 9 more than Pliskova.
The Czech gradually found some traction against the Sabalenka barrage, and while she held her serve throughout, she could not conjure up a break against the Belarusian’s delivery, and it was Sabalenka who rose to the occasion in the tiebreak, reeling off 5 of the final 7 points with clutch serving and shot-making to lock up her 3rd career victory in 5 meetings with Pliskova.
With Sabalenka serving at 2-all, she unleashed 3 aces and, finally, another un-returnable serve that gave her a 3-2 lead, and she held again for 4-3, when 4 big serves pulled her out of a love-30 hole.
Her forehand, though, began to break down, but she came up with some effective second serves to bring it to 5-4 on the way to the tiebreak, in which the Belarusian fired an unexpected 103 mph second-serve ace.
In all, Sabalenka slammed down 7 aces, while 22 of her 59 serves were not returned, some 57 percent.
Having kept her cool in the breaker, Sabalenka raised her arms in triumph after sealing the win with another forehand winner on her 2nd match point.
“I just tried to make her work for it,” Sabalenka told the crowd. “She played really well—somehow I was able to handle this level, and win this match.
“After this season, when I was struggling with a lot of things and I couldn’t play my best, but still I was there, I was fighting, and right now, again, I’m in the semi-final, and I have zero expectation for myself.
“It’s going to be tough, and I know I have to really work hard for this win. Now I will just go there and fight for every point.”
Sabalenka has struggled this year, particularly with her serve, but she has persevered through the ups and downs, setting aside any self-doubts her lack of form may have created.
“I definitely had a really, really tough season,” admitted the former World No 2 earlier this week. “But at the same time, I really appreciate this season because it showed me that, even if something is not working for me, I’ll be able to fight, no matter what.”
On Wednesday there was no questioning her skills, and she never went off the rails as she rocketed past the Czech, the 24-year old having reeled off 5 consecutive wins for the first time since she made the semi-finals here last year.
She produced her best serving performance of the tournament against Pliskova, never facing a break point and only taken to deuce twice, while she was particularly effective under pressure in the tight second set in which she fired her 6 aces, including a curling beauty out wide on a second serve at 2-2 in the breaker.
Sabalenka was broken 13 times in her first 4 matches at the Open, but did not surrender a single one against Pliskova, making 63 percent of her second service points.
Fourteen months ago, Sabalenka got to her first career semi-final at Wimbledon and now, heading into her third, she says she is a completely different person.
“I was almost about to cry in the match to break through in the first week,” she said. “Then I was in the semi-final, and then it was a lot of expectations. I felt like, ‘OK, I think this is my time, I’m going to win it’.
“I would say that I didn’t expect [Pliskova] to play that well. I expect me to win the rest of the matches really easy. And then I had another experience in the [US Open] semi-final. Again, I lost it.”
Sabalenka will return to the Top 5 if she reaches the final, while Pliskova, who fell for the fourth straight time in the US Open quarter-finals, is projected to be back in the Top 20 on Monday.
There will be a new, first time, US Open women’s singles champion crowned on Saturday, and Sabalenka has put herself in a position to benefit from the experience of reaching back-to-back semi-finals at the majors in 2021.
She lost a pressure cooker semi-final to Leylah Fernandez in Arthur Ashe Stadium last year, and spoke prophetically about it, and her future.
“This is life,” she said. “If you’re not using your opportunities, someone else will use it.
“This is what happened today. I will try to improve it. I will keep working and fighting, and I believe that one day it will come.”
For the talented No 6 seed with gargantuan ground-strokes and burgeoning confidence, that day could be approaching fast and hard, and she will have a chance to make good on her promise this weekend in New York, starting with a semi-final against top-seeded Iga Swiatek, who later dispatched American Jessica Pegula, 6-3 7-6(4), in the night session.