At Wimbledon, the women’s final four has marquee value

By Ben Rothenberg

Karolina Pliskova, the only woman to reach this year’s Wimbledon semifinals without dropping a set, is learning to appreciate what she’s done, rather than dwelling on what she hasn’t.

Pliskova, 29, reached the semifinals of Wimbledon for the first time with a decisive 6-2, 6-2 victory over Viktorija Golubic on Tuesday, completing her set of having reached the final four at all four Grand Slam events.

Pliskova, who lost her lone major final at the 2016 U.S. Open, has yet to win one of those events, but has used her booming serve to become a model of consistency in an era of women’s tennis where few players have been able to sustain success.

When her WTA Tour ranking slipped to No. 13 last week, Pliskova’s run inside the top 10 ended at 230 consecutive weeks. By reaching the semifinals, she will rejoin that top tier next week.

“Especially this year after COVID, so many things changed,” Pliskova said on Tuesday in an interview. “I was not playing that well as I was playing the last couple years before, and I had just taken it as too automatic that I’m top 10.”

“Now I can see it’s not so easy to be there for that much time,” Pliskova added. “I get older, I just appreciate it. Even now, getting to No. 1, which I got, I don’t want to say it was impossible, but it feels so far away now from me. So I think, with time, I appreciate these things more.”

Pliskova spent eight weeks with the No. 1 ranking in 2017, putting her among the handful of players — Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Marcelo Ríos — who have reached the top spot without winning a major singles title. She is the only player in that group still active on tour.

“I realized now, in the last two years, that even if I don’t win a Grand Slam, there are some girls that they win one and then they never win anything anymore — they are not even top 10, they can’t hold the level,” Pliskova said. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s better. And with age, I somehow appreciate the level which I’ve been able to hold more. Maybe that’s even more difficult than to just have an amazing two weeks once in life.

“But, of course that’s something I’ve been trying to do,” she added.

Pliskova has been working this year with Sascha Bajin, the longtime hitting partner of Serena Williams who later coached Naomi Osaka to her first two Grand Slam titles. Despite early struggles during their partnership, Pliskova kept her faith in Bajin.

“To be honest, it’s for sure thanks to him I’m where I am now, because he doesn’t put any pressure on me,” she said. “He’s super positive, which for me is sometimes hard to be.”

Pliskova said she was neither heartened nor discouraged by players who have come out of obscurity, such as last month’s French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, to win sudden Grand Slam titles while she has been toiling away.

“OK, Krejcikova was quite out of nowhere, but she played well,” Pliskova said. “I think if you really go all the way, there was zero expectation for her, no pressure at all, so in every match she wasn’t a favorite. That’s a big difference: if you have to play many years like me, being a favorite, every time it’s: ‘Is this your Grand Slam? Is this your Grand Slam?’ So I think it’s a very different situation.”

Pliskova, still two wins from learning if this Wimbledon will be her Grand Slam or not, will next face a player who had been previously hitting a much lower ceiling, the fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka.

Sabalenka, who is seeded second at Wimbledon, had failed to reach even a quarterfinal in her 14 previous appearances in the main draw at a Grand Slam, despite strong results across smaller tour events. Sabalenka’s play in her first major quarterfinal was worth the wait on Tuesday, when she beat the crafty Ons Jabeur 6-4, 6-3.

“It surprised me, but I didn’t feel that pressure of being in the quarterfinal for the first time,” Sabalenka said. “I was just enjoying the atmosphere and enjoying my game, just doing everything I can to win this match, so it was a great performance for me.”

Sabalenka said she had been speaking with a sports psychologist who persuaded her to not downplay the pressure of the occasion, knowing that such attempts at denial only made her nerves worse.

“I kind of accept this situation, that I’m under pressure on the Grand Slams,” Sabalenka said. “It helps me to actually be able to show my level on the court. It’s easy things, but it’s really not easy to do actually.”

Today’s other semifinal will pit top-seeded Ashleigh Barty, who won 6-1, 6-3 over Ajla Tomljanovic, against 25th-seeded Angelique Kerber, who defeated 19th-seeded Karolina Muchova 6-2, 6-3.

Kerber, the 2018 Wimbledon champion, is a former world No. 1, giving the remaining women’s roster considerable marquee value across the board compared to the other surprising slates at recent events.

“I think it’s also good for the crowd to see three former No. 1 players,” Kerber said of herself, Barty and Pliskova. “Sabalenka is No. 2 seeded. Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to see that. I’m really happy that I’m one of the four.”

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