Karolina Pliskova has already checked off some serious items off her tennis bucket list.
She reached a Grand Slam final (US Open 2016), she became world No. 1 (July 2017), she won nine career titles and scored some big victories including triumphs over both Serena and Venus Williams at the same major (also US Open 2016).
Now ranked No. 5 in the world, Pliskova is still searching for a maiden Grand Slam title but the 25-year-old assures she is in no rush and is focusing on improving her game more than anything else.
Pliskova is seeded No. 3 in Dubai, where she was runner-up to Simona Halep in 2015. Before she opens her campaign against either Carla Suarez Navarro or a qualifier, the Czech star sat down with Sport360 at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai.
You were ill in Doha, how are you feeling now heading into Dubai?
Much better now, not still 100 per cent but I’m practicing and feeling much better than I did in Doha. I had to skip Fed Cup week so it started already there and I didn’t practice much for the last couple of days so Doha wasn’t really the best for me but I’m getting better every day.
How do you feel about your season so far?
I think it was a solid start, similar to last year. I was defending a lot of points so it was kind of tough to start the season. Also I was sick in the offseason so it was tough just to start in great shape and with great results but overall it was very solid, it could be much worse, but I hope I can improve during the season.
Was it just a regular flu during the offseason?
Two times I got sick but I took antibiotics so it always takes some time to get better.
You’ve been quite consistent over the past couple of seasons and have had some great results, do you feel that one big Grand Slam title is what you’re really waiting for at the moment?
Of course. But I’ve been in big finals already, I’ve been playing big tournaments already for like four, five years so I know how it is to be there, I know how to beat the top players, I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself. I think it comes with time. I need time to get better in some things so hopefully maybe if not this year, I have next year, I have so many years in front of me so there is no pressure.
Caroline Wozniacki made her first Slam final in 2009. She won one more than eight years later last month at the Australian Open. Do you see that and think the chance is always there to finally get there?
I think some girls, especially with women’s, maybe also with men’s, it comes with the age, so you feel more experienced and maybe what you’re missing when you’re 23 or 22 you find it when you’re 30. I think there are so many women who won a Grand Slam by 30 years old so I think there’s always a chance to get there and win those titles, even a few years later. I know I have a chance and I have a game that doesn’t cost me that much energy so I know I can play a few more years for sure.
What do you think you’ve improved the most over the past 12 months?
I think it’s the consistency, by not losing – okay it’s still happening – but by not losing to really worse players than I am. I always say I can beat the top players I think my game went so much up with all the experience, still practicing, still improving my fitness on the court so there are many things I got better at but for sure there are so many things I can improve.
What was it like when you were young starting out in tennis, you and your twin sister Kristyna?
Both parents were supporting us. They aren’t sports people, my father played ice hockey but not really tennis so nobody from our family played tennis. I think it was much easier to have a sister, and with the same age, that we could do a lot of things together, so it was like more fun, not really like hard practicing. That’s why I think we kept on playing and stuck with tennis and we enjoyed it when we were little.
Were you guys like super-competitive with each other?
We were and we still are. In everything, we just want to be better than the other one.
Was there a point you felt tennis became more of a job than just the sport that you loved growing up?
I think it happens automatically when you come from juniors to women’s, you take it more like a job because you start to play for money, you start to play in front of people paying for tickets to see, so it changes automatically.
I’m still trying not to take it as a work but unfortunately there are days when you don’t want to get up and you don’t want to go on court but you still have to so sometimes it’s work but the tournament the matches I take as a fun, or as a hobby. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not always smiling on the court but I just try to enjoy it a little bit more. The tougher part is the practices and the gym and the sweating when you don’t really feel well.
Last year you told me how much easier life on tour is when your boyfriend is travelling with you. Now you’re engaged. Is it nice to have other things to plan and look forward to besides just tennis?
So far it didn’t change that much because we’re still in love, we’ve been together for two years, it’s just about the ring. For sure we are planning the wedding but with the schedule we have we are travelling so much there isn’t much time to really plan it, choose a date, where we want to do it. I want a small wedding, he wants it a little bit bigger so we’re still discussing it. It’s just nice to have somebody on tour, not being alone all the time, especially when you’re losing it’s just not easy to travel, practice and still play. I’m just happy he can be around me.
There are a few mums on tour like Tatjana Maria, Kateryna Bondarenko, Victoria Azarenka and now Serena Williams and Mandy Minella are coming back. Can you imagine yourself competing and travelling the tour as a mother?
Not really for now. I still feel like okay I’m going to be 26 soon but I still feel like I’m pretty young for even having a baby, and then still to have a baby and be back on tour, maybe one day I’ll change my mind but for sure not now. I can’t imagine travelling with a baby and having so many things around happening. Maybe to somebody it’s going to help mentally that they feel better having their baby there but I think it’s not my case for now.
Greek youngster Maria Sakkari has fought for more than four hours in scorching Dubai weather to make it through to the third and final round of qualifying, with battling wins over Wang Yafan and Hsieh Su-Wei.
The 22-year-old had posted her first win of the season on Saturday against Wang – a two hour and 29 minute affair – before overcoming Hsieh on Sunday 7-5, 7-5 in one hour and 37 minutes.
Sakkari, ranked No. 60 in the world, will take on ex-US Open champion Sam Stosur on Monday looking to earn a place in the Dubai main draw.
“It’s always tough to play qualies especially in these kind of tournaments, they are so strong, half of the players could be in the main draw in other tournaments. It’s always tough but it’s always good for your confidence,” said the Athens native.
On how she got through her gruelling three-setter against Wang, she added: “Fight and believe in yourself that you can do it. It was my first win of the year so it was quite tough and important so I’m happy that I went through that yesterday and today.”
Sakkari is the only player from Greece ranked in the WTA top 180 and leads just six women from her country who have a world ranking.
On the men’s tour, Greek Next Gen star Stefanos Tsitsipas – a former junior No. 1 – is now ranked 82 in the world and together with Sakkari, they are catching the attention of many people back home.
“The sport is growing because of us and it’s really good that we can help on that. We are both happy and we hope we can grow it more,” said Sakkari, who is coached by former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson.
“We feel proud, because Greeks are patriotic, it’s very important for us and it’s very nice that we can represent our country but on the other hand it’s quite sad that we’re just two players. Hopefully more will come.”
Sakkari spent some time during her offseason last December training in Dubai and admits the hot conditions are quite familiar to her.
“I am used to it. It feels like home, that’s what I was saying when we were flying from Doha to here ‘it’s good to be home’. It’s great, here they have the best conditions to practice, especially at that time of the year when it’s freezing in Europe. We really liked it and we will come back for sure,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tunisian Ons Jabeur fell in her second round of qualifying 6-3, 6-3 to Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko while 2016 Dubai champion Sara Errani advanced to the final round 6-4, 6-4 over American Bernarda Pera. Errani faces Belarusian Aryna Sabalenko on Monday for a spot in the main draw. Italian Camila Giorgi sustained a thigh injury and was forced to retire after taking the opening set 6-4 off of Russian Sofya Zhuk.
A year ago, Elina Svitolina came to Dubai as a five-time title winner on the WTA tour, ranked No. 13 in the world.
Her quintet of trophies were all won at International-level tournaments – the lowest tier on the WTA circuit – and she was searching for that one big result that would officially announce her arrival to the big leagues.
A week later, she eased by Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to claim the Premier 5-level Dubai crown and make her top-10 debut.
There was no stopping her from that point onwards. Svitolina went on to win two more Premier 5s in Rome and Toronto, and qualified for the year-end WTA Finals for the first time. She ended 2017 ranked No. 6 in the world.
This week in Dubai, Svitolina has a target on her back not just as the defending champion but as the tournament’s top seed.
“This year going to be a couple times for me, coming to big tournaments as defending champion. I’m going to have to get used to it,” Svitolina told reporters at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai on Sunday.
“Different feeling definitely for me. But, yeah, for me it’s also very interesting to see how I’m going to handle it. Yeah, I’m ready for this challenge definitely.
“I don’t look at it as a pressure because I played well this year. I know what I have to do to be ready to, yeah, play well here. Yeah, just that I have to go on court and be 100 per cent physically, yeah, just be ready for everything really.”
— Elina Svitolina (@ElinaSvitolina) January 29, 2018
The Ukrainian owns a solid 10-2 win-loss record in 2018 that includes a title run in Brisbane and a quarter-finals showing at the Australian Open.
The 23-year-old is currently ranked No. 3 and is No. 5 in the 2018 Porsche Race to Singapore standings.
Svitolina highlights her consistency as the area in which she has improved the most and while she is yet to make it past the quarter-finals at a major, she is confident and pleased with her progress so far.
With the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka taking time away from the game for various reasons, Svitolina is one of the younger players to rise through the ranks and solidify her place at the top.
“I think the game changed, but also everyone who is top-10 are quite solid and consistent with their game. That’s why it’s, like, now kind of equal. Everyone is, yeah, strong and ready to compete each week,” explains Svitolina.
Williams, who had her first child, Olympia, last September made her first competitive appearance in 13 months last week in Fed Cup, playing doubles for USA against Netherlands. The 23-time Grand Slam champion will return to the tour for the first time since January 2017 next month at Indian Wells.
The 36-year-old Williams will be unranked but will have a special ranking of No. 1 which she can use to enter as many as eight tournaments.
Does Svitolina see the American star coming back as strong as she was in the past?
“I think maybe not as strong, but different strong. She definitely can come back to level she was. But I’m sure that she will be very, very strong again. I’m not sure it’s going to be, like, the same,” said Svitolina, who is due to compete in a Tie Break Tens exhibition event in New York on March 5 alongside Williams and others.
“For sure, she’s a great champion. She has unbelievable experience, unbelievable game for the tennis. Very unique. It’s going to be very interesting to see her coming back. Hopefully, you know, I can play against her. I’m going to have a chance to play actually in New York.”
Svitolina has a bye in the opening round in Dubai and could face either a qualifier or Kiki Bertens in round two.
Main draw action begins on Monday with the final taking place on Saturday February 24.