While World No 1 Ash Barty is the clear favourite heading into the Wimbledon ladies single final on Saturday, it could well prove to be Karolina Pliskova’s chance to pull off a major upset at SW19.
When you're a kid, the possibilities in your mind are endless. I think as you kind of get older, get more experienced, obviously with that, you know, there's a lot more that comes with it. It's almost not just a pipe dream; it could be a reality. I think it's just about going out there and remembering how you felt as a kid, that there was the enjoyment, there was the freedom just to go out there and kind of try and do what you can." Ash Barty
Of the two, Barty’s dominant semi-final win over Angelique Kerber in straight sets on Thursday, despite falling behind in the second, demonstrated not only the Australian’s considerable skills but her steely determination.
She avenged the defeat at the German’s hands in 2018, in the final of the Sydney Open in 3 tight sets, which, she said, helped give her the focus to become World No 1.
Barty left that court knowing what she needed to do to get to the next level, and set about putting it into practice, enabling her to surge to the top of the rankings, and winning the French Open along the way in 2019.
“I remember that match well. It was my first final in Australia, in Sydney,” Barty recalled. “I think that match, I think, just one break each set in the final.
“I remember coming off the court and feeling like my level was close, but it wasn’t good enough.
“I was close, but there was that extra step that I needed to take to compete with someone of Angie’s calibre in the sense of she doesn’t give you cheapies.
“She competes for every single point. She’s won Grand Slams. She knows how to hang tough in brutal moments.
“That was almost a bit of a reset, knowing I’m not far off, but I’m not there yet.”
Barty and her team are meticulous in her preparation and while she may have started slowly at The Championships this year, her performance on Thursday was one to behold as she took a major step towards fulfilling her dream of winning Wimbledon.
“One day I would love to be the champion here,” she said. “It’s a dream. It’s a goal.”
Her amiable personality, level-headed approach and all-round game have garnered her a legion of fans, who love to see her win and accept that, sometimes, there are losses which, she endearingly says, are inevitable and there are many more important things in life than winning or losing – the sun will always come up in the morning.
Wimbledon marks her 8th final since making the top spot, and she has converted 5 of those into titles, including 3 this year, in Melbourne, Miami and Stuttgart.
“When you’re a kid, the possibilities in your mind are endless,” she told the press. “I think as you kind of get older, get more experienced, obviously with that, you know, there’s a lot more that comes with it.
“It’s almost not just a pipe dream; it could be a reality.
“I think it’s just about going out there and remembering how you felt as a kid, that there was the enjoyment, there was the freedom just to go out there and kind of try and do what you can.”
She came into Wimbledon with no grass-court tournament preparation after retiring from her second round at Roland Garros with a hip injury and limping off the court.
Nevetherless she has found her stride on the grass and now faces an opponent in Pliskova whom she has beaten 5 times in 7 encounters, including the past 3 dating back to 2018.
In their recent matches, the multi-faceted nature of Barty’s game has been a key factor, plus her determination to make the most of every opportunity presented to her, including the one this Saturday.
Pliskova has won 16 titles in her career and, since the start of 2015, won more matches on tour than anyone, but she went into a bit of slump that saw her drop out of the Top 10 just ahead of Wimbledon.
She has also secured the World No 1 spot, reached the final of the US Open in 2016, and been successful on the grass in winning Eastbourne twice.
This fortnight, the tall Czech has been cruising quietly under the radar leading into the quarter-finals, which completed her quartet of majors.
“It’s tough because everybody thinks I have the perfect game for grass,” Pliskova said 3 years ago. “But I think the only problem with me on the grass is that I’m still not able to go a little bit down in the knees.
“Maybe a few shots I’m able to do it, but not the whole match, and not maybe the important points.”
On Thursday, however, Pliskova overcame this notion, bent her knees and absorbed the incredible pace and power sent her way by Aryna Sabalenka.
She shrugged off a double-fault to lose the first set, something unthinkable a year or so ago when it would have heralded a downward spiral.
On this occasion it turned out to be the only break point she suffered in the whole match, and she came back to earn her first career win over the big-hitting Belarusian.
Her game fell in neatly behind her dominance on serve, and her mobility astounded observers.
In Pliskova’s last meeting against Barty, in April in Stuttgart, the Czech came within two points of the win before the Aussie manufactured a 2-6 6-1 7-5 win en route to the title.
Pliskova’s last win over Barty came in straight sets at the 2018 US Open, and she won their only tour-level meeting on grass, which came at the start of her return to the game at 2016 Nottingham, which the Czech won in 2 tiebreaks.
To beat Barty, Pliskova needs to roll through her service games, as she has been doing throughout, and to keep the scoreboard pressure on the Australian.
Barty has been broken 11 times in the Championships, nearly 3 times Pliskova’s rate.
The biggest challenge for Pliskova and her coach, Sascha Bajin, will be coming up with a game plan to neutralise Barty’s biting backhand slice.
The final key will be to set aside any mental baggage Pliskova carries from her 3 straight losses to Barty.
The two are good friends and have immense respect for each other, both as people as well as competitors.
“So far my second [Slam] final, second time I’m playing against [the] No.1,” Pliskova said with a wry smile. “But I think it can’t be any better than that.
“You want to play the best player in the final. Of course, I don’t want anybody else but her there.”
Pliskova, the 8th seed, triumphed in 3 sets against Sabalenka, demonstrating a high quality returning game to blunt the effectiveness of the Belarusian’s serve during a 5-7 6-4 6-4 win that lasted just under 2 hours.
It was a battle of the 6-feet tall big-hitters as the pair racked up 32 aces between them in a tight contest, smashing a Wimbledon record held by Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka from 2012, when they hit a combined 25 aces.
“I think I’m still half like I can’t believe it because somehow coming into this tournament the dream was to make the second week, of course, because I was not in the second week for a while,” she told a news conference. “Never I thought about maybe going into the final.”
Earlier, Barty, the top seed, wrapped up her 87-minute semi-final and stood with her hands on her head, a look of disbelief stamped across her face. Centre Court was on its feet.
“Angie is an incredible competitor,” Barty said. “That match was at a great level, the best I’ve played, in quite some time.
“It was just nice to play a really good level throughout the whole match, kind of fought and scrapped when I had to, controlled the ball when I had to. Having that feeling on the last point was amazing.”
The Australian struck 38 winners and reeled off 11 consecutive points to overturn a 3-5 deficit in the second set, the run starting in the 8th game when Barty saved a couple of break points, and she then followed it up with a break and a hold, both to love.
Barty is bidding to become the first No 1 seed to win Wimbledon since Serena in 2016, and she is also aiming to become the 4th junior Wimbledon champion in the Open Era to win the Venus Rosewater Dish after Ann Jones, Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo.
With her credentials and pedigree she is the clear favourite but she will have a stern task ahead of her in Pliskova, not to mention a 6 inch or so height differential.
“We’ve had some good matches,” the Czech said. “Of course, I lost couple of times, but I think she has an extremely difficult game to play [against].
“It’s going to be difficult on grass because of her slides and just her game overall.
“It’s a final. Anything can happen.
“Also for her, I know she has a Grand Slam, but also for her it is the first Wimbledon final. I think we both have good chances.
“It’s going to be hopefully a good match to watch as well because with her it’s always interesting.”