Australian Open 2019: Despite semi-final ouster, Karolina Pliskova starting to prove that robotic play can be recipe for success

Cyborg. Robot. Machine. Servebot. Humanoid.

How often have we used such words to belittle a sportsperson we don’t find ‘human’ enough? We want our athletes to be dynamic and colorful, both with their play and their personality; what we don’t want them to be is staid or predictable. We celebrate the heroes who traverse the entire gamut of physical and emotional possibilities, and dismiss the nose-to-the-ground journeymen who stick to their trusted patterns of play.

Australian Open 2019: Despite semi-final ouster, Karolina Pliskova starting to prove that robotic play can be recipe for success

Karolina Pliskova reacts after a point against Naomi Osaka . AFP

Karolina Pliskova has earned a fair share of unflattering nicknames for her seemingly basic, one-note game. She serves big and can swat away groundstroke winners like the best of them, but her inability to bring variation on to the court makes her the exact opposite of a crowd favorite.

It doesn’t help that Pliskova doesn’t show much emotion in her matches, whether she is winning or losing. She seems to be supremely unaffected by everything that’s going on around her, and sometimes you wonder whether she even cares about winning.

On Wednesday, we saw more emotion at a Pliskova match than we have seen in her entire career — but from her player box, not from her. After she completed her remarkable comeback win over Serena Williams in the quarter-final, her husband in the stands looked like he was about to explode out of happiness. He kept jumping up and down like a maniac, waving his arms about so fiercely that you feared he would suffer a shoulder dislocation.

In sharp contrast, Pliskova looked like she had registered just another routine win, as she calmly ran towards the net for the handshake and then got ready for the on-court interview.

Does that ability to remain even-keeled at all times help Pliskova? It certainly did against Williams. After she went 1-5 down in the third set, she saw the American roll her ankle and realised she had been given a tiny sliver of hope.

Anybody else in her situation would have been on edge from that point, desperate to make the most of the good fortune. But not Pliskova.

She continued playing exactly the way she had been all match, muscling the ball with pace and close to the lines. Ultimately, that is what won her the match; Williams got flustered at getting the same kind of ball over and over again, and in her bid to elicit a short reply from the Czech, she ended up making one error too many.

After the match Williams made a surprising assessment of the match, insisting that Pliskova played ‘lights out tennis’ on the match points. Pliskova, on the other hand, said that once she got close to defeat, she did the same thing that she had done to win the first set: she was “aggressive”.

If being aggressive was all that it took to win from 1-5 down against Serena Williams, the tennis landscape would have looked very different today. But Pliskova had something else going for her — she possesses the kind of effortless power that very few in the world do.

So when she is playing ‘aggressive’, she is in effect putting herself in position to crunch the most nonchalant of winners imaginable. There’s nobody who can flick backhand winners as casually as Pliskova does; one moment it looks like she’s lumbering to reach the ball, the next moment the ball is screaming past the opponent.

There’s a lot to be said for constantly playing the same brand of tennis when you’ve got such tremendous power at your command. Particularly so when you consider the severe limitations in Pliskova’s game; she is possibly one of the worst movers in the top 100, and her frame doesn’t even seem likely to allow much improvement in that area.

As you can imagine though, this adherence to a flat level of play, with no major peaks or troughs, is liable to backfire when the opponent is red-lining. Against Naomi Osaka in the semi-final on Thursday, Pliskova again went from one point to the next without any visible change in her strategy or intensity. And so when Osaka lifted her game a notch or two higher, Pliskova couldn’t follow — and promptly went a set and a break down.

That she could still make it a tight three-setter was down as much to Osaka’s errors as it was to anything special that the Czech did on her part. Sure, Pliskova continued trying to hammer the ball for stone-cold winners, but her inferior athleticism meant she was always a step slower than her opponent. And when the Japanese regained her rhythm towards the end, Pliskova again had no answer.

What works one day doesn’t work another — that’s just sport. But you can’t help but feel that with Pliskova, this might be the best and most sustainable approach. She will never be a quick mover, and she will likely never have the best footwork, so we can’t expect her to stay with the athletic baseliners of the world day-in and day-out. But what she can do is sustain a reasonably high level throughout a tournament. That can help her quickly dispatch of the lower-ranked opponents, and hang in there long enough against the higher-ranked ones — in the hope that one of them will eventually implode, as Williams did.

When I say ‘reasonably high level’ in relation to Pliskova, I mean keeping the unforced errors to a minimum. And that’s exactly what she did at this year’s Australian Open — she made just three errors in her blowout win over Garbine Muguruza and just 15 against Williams, which are striking numbers for someone of her big hitting capabilities. Even against Osaka she made just 21 errors over three sets, which is not a bad number at all.

Pliskova is working with a new coaching team, with Conchita Martinez and Rennae Stubbs having joined her after Wimbledon last year. The recent emphasis on cutting down on the errors is probably a product of this new association, and it is already paying dividends — Pliskova reached the US Open quarter-final last year, qualified for the WTA Finals where she reached the semis, and now has a title and a Slam semi-final to start the year 2019.

Can she do more going forward, maybe even win a Slam some day? By continuing to treat success and failure with her unique brand of equanimity, she certainly can.

And if that does happen, she won’t even mind people calling her a servebot or a machine. There’s nothing wrong with ‘botting’ your way to a Grand Slam title.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 22:06:22 IST

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