Pliskova ponders route to top spot

Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic with the WTA world No. 1 trophy in Toronto last Sunday. The Rogers Cup will be her first appearance on court since her elevation last month to the top spot, despite never having won a Grand Slam tournament.
Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic with the WTA world No. 1 trophy in Toronto last Sunday. The Rogers Cup will be her first appearance on court since her elevation last month to the top spot, despite never having won a Grand Slam tournament.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Delayed gratification was the major emotion as Czech took No. 1 spot following Halep loss

TORONTO • Becoming No. 1 in women's tennis did not happen the way Karolina Pliskova had dreamed it.

She clinched the top ranking five days after losing in the second round of Wimbledon, when Simona Halep, ranked second, lost in the quarter-finals.

Pliskova was in Monaco on vacation with her boyfriend, Michal Hrdlicka, and wanted to clear her mind of tennis thoughts. But she could not avoid messages from friends saying that she was one result away from being No. 1. So she checked the score after Halep's match on July 11, a 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 defeat by Johanna Konta, and learnt she would be world No. 1.

"It was a little bit of a strange situation," she said in a phone interview from Toronto, where she was set to play her first match as No. 1 yesterday (this morning, Singapore time) at the Rogers Cup against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

"At first I was not really happy or sure if I wanted to get there like this."

Gradually, her sense of gratification mounted.

"With time... I just felt happy that I got there," she said. "I was proud. For my family and everybody, it was a quite huge thing in the Czech Republic as I was the first one who got there with Czech nationality."

SLOW ACCEPTANCE

At first I was not really happy or sure if I wanted to get there like this... It was a quite huge thing in the Czech Republic as I was the first one who got there with Czech nationality.

KAROLINA PLISKOVA, on her dilemma.

The 25-year-old has had a relatively quick ascent over the last 12 months. Ranked 17th this time last year, she rose with a title in Cincinnati and a runner-up finish at the US Open. Before the Open, she had not made it past the third round in her 17 previous Grand Slam tournaments. Then she became only the fourth woman to beat both Williams sisters at the same Grand Slam event, ousting Venus in the fourth round and top-ranked Serena in the semi-finals.

Pliskova started this year ranked world No. 6. With no dominant player in women's tennis after Serena went on maternity leave, her steady game of powerful serves and crisp groundstrokes has been enough to claim the top spot.

She reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and the semi-finals at Roland Garros, and claimed titles at three WTA tournaments.

Much of her ranking was built while working with her previous coach, Jiri Vanek. She began working with David Kotyza late last year. He acknowledged that the moment of her ascent to the top spot was anticlimactic.

"My first reaction was a bit of mixed feelings, as getting to No. 1 wasn't connected to an emotional celebration of winning a match or a tournament," he said. "But I am very happy that I can be part of it. The fact is that Karolina deserves this accomplishment thanks to impressive, consistent results over the past 12 months."

He believes her perfectionism would be an asset at the top.

"However Karolina plays, she is almost always unsatisfied with her game, which I think in this situation can be a plus," he said. "She can focus on growing her game instead of getting distracted with outside pressure."

Blocking out distractions and adversity proved pivotal for Pliskova and her twin sister, Kristyna, who is ranked 37th. In their early teens, their father, Radek Plisek, was imprisoned for two years on charges related to his failure to pay taxes.

"It was very tough," Pliskova recalled during an interview in June. "We were 13, and he was working, so we had all the money from him, all our coaches from him."

Plisek was incarcerated again in 2013. He served a year as his daughters ascended through the game's professional ranks, following their results as best he could from newspapers and word of mouth.

Pliskova said the painful experiences of separation made her and her family stronger.

"We somehow found a way," she said. "I don't think there is any player who has everything coming easy, you know? I think for me, I don't regret it. Obviously we were missing him, but it gave us - my family, my mother, my sister - it gave us so much power to fight. Personally, for me, it helped a lot. You just have to find a different way."

Becoming the 23rd woman to achieve the No. 1 ranking, Pliskova said, was an achievement that they could celebrate together.

The next goal for her is to win a Grand Slam title.

"I think that's the only thing I'm missing right now," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Pliskova ponders route to top spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe