French Open 2019: Karolina Pliskova’s famed unflappability comes back to haunt her in third round exit

There’s a fine line between unflappable and lackluster, but sometimes you wonder whether Karolina Pliskova knows that.

Ever since she first rose to the limelight around five years ago, Pliskova has been a picture of absolute calm on the court. You can never tell whether she’s leading comfortably in a match or trailing hopelessly; her body language betrays nothing, and her face remains a blank canvas of mystery.

 French Open 2019: Karolina Pliskova’s famed unflappability comes back to haunt her in third round exit

Karolina Pliskova lost to Croatia's Petra Martic in the French Open third round match on Friday. Reuters

That approach has served her well for much of 2019. Pliskova is No. 2 in the WTA rankings right now, having won a couple of events and reached the semifinals of many more. Most memorably, her ability to remain even-keeled was a big factor in her freak win over Serena Williams at the Australian Open.

But is it a good idea to remain perpetually poker-faced even when nothing you’re doing is working?

In her French Open third round match against Petra Martic on Friday, Pliskova looked off-color from the start; her serve was sub-par, her forehand error-prone, and her return non-threatening.

And yet she never tried to change things, or pump herself up in any way. It was one-way traffic all the way through–and the road led to an exit from Paris for the second seed.

Part of Pliskova’s one-note play stems from the inherent limitations in her game. She doesn’t have the softest hands or the quickest feet, so it’s not surprising to see her try to belt the ball at full power no matter where she is on the court. Moreover, she possesses one of the biggest serves in the game; that makes it easy to understand why she relies so greatly on it.

Her record against Martic should have keyed us in on the upset potential in this match. The Croat had a 3-1 head-to-head lead against Pliskova going into Roland Garros –In fact, before Miami this year, Pliskova had never even taken a set off Martic.

Why does Martic’s game cause so many problems for Pliskova? It was clear right from the second game of Friday's match. Martic doesn’t have the biggest of ground-strokes, but she has a nice combination of consistency and variation that enables her to put the ball in difficult positions on the court.

It’s not that she hits a lot of drop shots and slices, or approaches the net come hell or high water; it’s the deft changes she makes on routine shots that make her opponents uncomfortable.

Martic can force Pliskova to hit a number of different shots in every rally–which is usually half the job done against the Czech.

Give Pliskova the same ball over and over again, and she will wear you down with her superior weight of shot. But make her change her swing from one shot to the next, and she will eventually start leaking errors.

Pliskova did leak a lot of errors on Friday –28 over the course of two sets. Martic made exactly half of that number, which means she didn’t even have to be at her attacking best to seize the momentum.

Too often Pliskova gifted points away by missing eminently makeable shots; in this match, not unlike a majority of the matches they’ve played against each other, the subtleties of Martic’s variations were enough to break down Pliskova’s game.

The Czech had entered the tournament as one of the top contenders.

In the lead-up to Roland Garros she had won the title in Rome, and was looking increasingly comfortable with the surface.

She also had claycourt veteran Conchita Martinez in tow; after the success of their temporary partnership over the previous few months, Pliskova appointed Martinez as her full-time coach at the start of May.

Was she ready to embark on a new journey as a claycourt maven, and convince everyone that her French Open semifinal run in 2017 was no fluke?

We’ll have to wait a year to answer that because for now, Pliskova’s run of Grand Slam futility continues–as does her even-tempered tennis, which can impress and infuriate in equal measure.

The atmosphere never changes in a Pliskova match, even if the result does, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
On Friday, every error Pliskova made was followed by a deadpan look that didn’t seem likely to inspire any change.

That was eerily similar to a few months ago in her match against Williams in Melbourne, but with the result reversed: there, every winner that she made was followed by a nonchalant shrug. Does positive energy mean anything to her?

The remaining players in the draw wouldn’t care, because their job has suddenly been made a little easier. Pliskova’s exit, coming as it does on the heels of Kiki Bertens’ withdrawal on Thursday, means that the women’s tournament is now even more wide open than it was at the start.

No player is looking especially dominant–not the World No. 1, not the 23-time Slam winner, and certainly not the defending champion. And now the two pre-tournament favorites are gone too.

Who can take advantage of the sudden void at the top of each section?

Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza seem like prime candidates, followed by possibly Madison Keys  and Ashleigh Barty. The rising teenagers Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova and Iga Swiatek are still in the mix too.

And of course, we can’t really write off Osaka, Williams or Halep until they’ve actually lost, which makes this a bit of a dozen-horse race.

Pliskova would’ve liked being a part of that race too. It’s too bad she couldn’t tread the line between unflappable and lackluster in her third round match – if she ever even knew where that line was.

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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2019 10:04:20 IST