It was expected to be yet another routine win for the 22-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the 2016 US Open in New York on Thursday. A year after her shock departure from her home Slam in this very round, the World No. 1 would surely not allow a repeat of such a debacle!
Instead, it turned out to be a landmark day for women’s tennis with the cool and collected 10th seeded Karolina Pliskova playing the biggest match of her life to knock out the legend. The Czech No. 1, who had never advanced past the third round of any Major prior to the ongoing US Open, inflicted a 6-2, 7-6(5) defeat and in the process, dethroned the American from the No. 1 spot.
Change of guard at the top
In next Monday’s WTA rankings, the reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, who too is looking for a final berth, will be the new numero uno, ending Serena’s 186-week reign as the world’s top-ranked player.
Pliskova had only played Serena just once – on the hardcourts of Stanford two years ago where she succumbed to the American in straight sets. The Czech, who is the current Tour leader this year for the number of aces, is well-known for the accuracy on her serves and that is always singled out as her biggest weapon. But what stood out in this clash was her aggressive returning and her ability to be composed even under pressure.
The 24-year-old had come to Flushing Meadows on the back of winning the title at Cincinnati. It goes without saying that she was playing some of her most confident tennis en route to her maiden Major semis.
But standing up to Serena’s challenge is a different ballgame altogether. She played an excellent opening set and put Serena in a spot with her fantastic combination of smashing first serves and superb returns. The top seed, on the other hand, did not look the same player for large parts of the match.
Less than 24 hours after overcoming a feisty Simona Halep in three sets, Williams clearly struggled with her movement as her unforced errors kept piling up. She made 31 of those throughout the course of the match. Her six double faults, the last of which shockingly came on match point, did not at all help her cause.
Pliskova won a staggering 84% of the points on her first serves while the higher-ranked player could manage only 66% and that is a telling stat in this contest.
The Czech earned her first break point of the match as early as the third game thanks to a stunning backhand return whose pace Serena found hard to handle. She would eventually go on to convert that break point and followed it up with another break of serve in the seventh game in a one-sided first set.
Pliskova stormed out to another break early in the second set to have a 6-2, 3-2 lead. The 10th seed hit a fabulous forehand from behind the tramlines in sealing that break that would surely go on to be a highlight reel. However, seconds after playing her best point of the match, Pliskova had a letdown.
She invited Serena back into this duel with a forgettable service game where she was broken to love. The two players held on for the next few games as the atmosphere inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium looked tense.
In the ensuing tie-break, Pliskova surged out to a 3-0 lead only to see that advantage vanishing due to a couple of unforced errors and a double fault. Serena even grabbed a mini-break to go up 4-3.
But she returned the favour soon after on a double fault of her own. Pliskova remained unfazed as her moment of truth approached and was able to grab the win on her very first match point.
The Czech, who saved a match point to oust Venus Williams in the fourth round, joins an illustrious trio of Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters to beat both Williams sisters at the same Major.