When Karolina Pliskova reached the Dubai title match two years ago, the Czech was ranked 18th in the world and it was the biggest final she had featured in thus far.
Fast forward to today and Pliskova is the world No3, a US Open runner-up, and one of the most feared players on tour with a deadly serve and missile-like groundstrokes that have taken down Serena Williams in New York last year.
The 24-year-old, whose Doha title on Saturday is the eighth of her young career, had a breakthrough 2016 that included a series of firsts, but remains ever so cool about the rapid progress she has made – her calm demeanour on the court reflected in the way she acts and feels off it.
“I don’t feel different,” Pliskova told Sport360 on the sidelines of the Qatar Total Open last week.
“Maybe on the court, a few things changed… my game changed a little bit, my mentality changed a little bit. I have more experience on the big stage, at grand slams and big tournaments, I won a few finals now, I played Singapore (the WTA Finals)…
“A lot of things happened last year but overall, off the court, I didn’t change. I’m just older by one year,” she added with a laugh.
Although she hadn’t made it past the third round at a grand slam up until last September, Pliskova found herself entering last month’s Australian Open as one of the favourites for the title.
She had won Brisbane to start the year and dropped just four games in her opening two rounds in Melbourne. But Pliskova ended up bowing out in the quarter-finals to surprise package Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, denying her fans the chance to witness a rematch with Serena in semis.
“It was a match that I wasn’t supposed to lose but it happened,” Pliskova says of her defeat to Lucic-Baroni.
“I think all of it was a bit tough for me because I was still playing girls whom I should beat since the first round of Brisbane so it was kind of a long stretch of matches against players who are supposedly worse than I am.
“So I just needed at least one match to play against someone who is, let’s say, better than me, or at least top-10 or something but it didn’t happen.
“I think my tennis was getting worse and worse with every round but I still made it to the quarter-final, which was my first at the Australian Open, and just the second time that I’ve passed the third round at a grand slam, and second time in a row, so I just don’t want to take it as a bad thing.
“Even though people were talking about me winning the grand slam, I still think there was Serena in the semi-final and Venus in the final so that wouldn’t have been easy at all.
“I would have been more satisfied if I played Serena in the semi-finals – that was my goal and dream for that tournament as soon as I saw the draw. It didn’t happen but I’m sure I’m going to get another chance.”
Pliskova has a steady head on her shoulders, which is perhaps her greatest asset. She is not shying away from the responsibility of being a top player and says she understands she has somewhat of a leadership role, like with her Czech team that she helped guide to victory over Spain last week in Fed Cup, or when on the tour.
When asked if she feels she’s considered the face of the younger generation that is ready to take over, she quickly points out that Serena and Venus were just in the final of the Australian Open at the age of 35 and 36.
She then adds: “There are a few new faces and we need to be known somehow by the people. We do need to be part of promotional campaigns, so they know about us, but it’s also about results and not only about promotion.”
Yes, Pliskova is happy for her racquet to do the talking for her. At 1.86m, Pliskova towers over almost all of her opponents. It’s why she leads the aces leaderboard each season and why she can pummel those forehands and backhands the way she does.
She says her movement remains the part of her game she wishes to improve the most but is pleased with the pace at which she has been progressing.
“I think it’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Someone is top-10, let’s say Belinda, when she’s 19, someone is there. I was 23… for me everything takes a little bit of time, but I think when it takes more time then I can stay longer there, it’s not like you’re going there then in one month you’re out again,” she says of how fast or slow things have panned out for her.
“Right now I feel fine, I feel comfortable on tour, playing the big tournaments, handling the pressure well. Sometimes I think the younger girls have a bit of problems with this, they are too young for this. Everyone needs those experiences, you can’t just have it right away. Everything takes time and I’m just happy I’m there now, I’d say everything has been happening on time.”
Pliskova is a straight-shooter and has the ability to perfectly articulate how mentally challenging life on tour can be. She has a twin sister, Kristyna, who is currently ranked No58 in the world, which has made the gruelling day-to-day of the tennis circuit easier throughout the years.
But as the gap in their rankings widened, their schedules became different and only now are the twins starting to cross paths again with Kristyna’s standing improving.
The daily tennis grind can be unforgiving and Pliskova admits there were times where she’d be yearning to go home, even though it contradicts with her deep desire to win matches and advance in a tournament.
It is a problem she says she no longer struggles with now that she is dating TV personality Michal Hrdlicka, who travels with her as often as he can. Is it difficult maintaining a relationship as a professional tennis player travelling year round?
“I would say it’s much easier actually for me, even handling the tournaments and tennis life, because you’re normally always alone,” she explains. “I was used to having my sister around but our schedules changed. Now I have my boyfriend so I don’t feel alone, I don’t need to go home fast from tournaments.
“Sometimes it’s a big help, if you’re like a month away and you still have one more week to go, I was like praying ‘please I want to go home’, not that I would want to lose, but I couldn’t wait to go home after that month.
“But now he’s with me – he’s not everywhere, but he tries to go to at least for the longer trips, longer than two, three weeks, he’s going to go. I would say it’s a big help. I feel like not being alone.
“I think it’s even good for the team that we’re not always together with the coaches. He can talk with him, there are more people around me, which I like now better.”
On her calm demeanour on court
I’m just trying to behave naturally on the court. If the emotions are coming, I’m not hiding it. But sometimes I have matches where the emotions are not there and I’m just calm the whole match.
I don’t want to pretend anything that I’m not, that’s the main thing. I know people want me to show more emotions on the court and definitely I play better if I’m showing it, so I’ll try to do that more but I think what they see on the court is just really me.
On her rising popularity back home
The best break-out was probably the Fed Cup final the year before, things changed a bit after that… since then, I have questions about interviews and photoshoots and stuff like that but I’m not really a fan of this, I just want to have my peace.
On her favourite status in most matches
Definitely, if you are winning, you have to take these things. You’re going to be the favourite, and you just have to win almost all the matches where you’re going to be favourite. I just take it.
On Kvitova, who was attacked at home
We texted after she had that injury, I wished her luck. She had so many people texting her, but she still answered. She texted us after Fed Cup to congratulate us. Hopefully she’s better. I saw her one day at my club, she was looking good.
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