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WTA Finals: Late season surge makes Karolina Pliskova strong contender for Singapore crown

Ahead of US Open 2016, Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova had six tour titles to her name and was ranked 11th in the world. The 24-year-old, who turned pro in 2009, had steadily climbed up the rankings after her first trophy at the 2013 Malaysian Open. She had finished 2014 just outside the top 20 and was outside the top 10 at the end of 2015. However, her career path had a major anomaly — Pliskova had never made it past the third round at a Grand Slam.

At her 18th major, the Czech finally broke her round-of-32 jinx, getting past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets with relative ease. In her first-ever fourth round slam appearance, Pliskova saved a match point against Venus Williams to script a famous victory over the two-time champion. She then went on to become only the fourth player in history to defeat both Williams sisters at a major. Her upset of Serena in the semis handed the number one ranking to Angelique Kerber, whom Pliskova eventually lost to in the 2016 US Open final after a thrilling three-setter.

 WTA Finals: Late season surge makes Karolina Pliskova strong contender for Singapore crown

Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic has one of the best serves on the WTA tour. Getty

Pliskova’s stunning US Open run was preceded by her second title of the season in Cincinnati, which included crushing an in-form Kerber in the final. The title was also her first at a WTA Premier tournament. This late-season surge helped her secure qualification for the WTA Finals for the very first time in her career.

"It's crazy, because that month in the States really changed everything," she was quoted as saying by the WTA website after clinching qualification at the China Open. "I don't know how far down I was on the road to Singapore leaderboard before Cincinnati — pretty far, I think!"

Pliskova made her debut in the top five of the WTA rankings on 10 October and has shown a remarkable improvement over the past three months. Her booming serve has always been her standout weapon. The Czech relies on her 6’1” tall frame to hit serves with ferocious speed and pin-point accuracy. For the second consecutive year she is the WTA ace leader, hitting over 500 aces in both 2015 (517) and 2016 (508). This is a record that no other player has achieved in the past. She is also ranked second on the tour in first serve points won (74.6 percent), trailing only to Serena (75.7 percent). The right-hander has an aggressive game, and loves to flatten the ball with her powerful groundstrokes.

While her height gives her a massive advantage, Pliskova’s lean, tall stature meant that she wasn’t always comfortable getting low to the ball. Despite winning the grass-court title in Nottingham in June, she had a disappointing Wimbledon campaign and suffered an exit in the second round at the hands of Japan’s Misaki Doi. Earlier in the year, she had been ousted in the third round at the Australian Open in Melbourne and in the first at Roland Garros.

Tired of the early defeats at majors, Pliskova recommitted herself to training and decided to skip the Olympics. Instead of making a trip to Rio, she started preparing for the US hardcourt season. Her coach Jiri Vanek, a former top 100 men’s player from Czechoslovakia, made her practice wearing a belt with elastic bands, the New York Times reported. The bands attach to her lower legs and force her to move with her knees bent. All the long hours she spent working on her core strength have paid massive dividends. Pliskova’s movement and court positioning has improved by leaps and bounds and is one of the key factors for her impressive form.

Her recent string of results in the Asian swing of the tour may concern Pliskova but she is heading into Singapore with a lot of confidence under her belt and is well-rested. She had two tough defeats in Tokyo and Wuhan but did enough in Beijing to book her spot in the year-ending championships. After narrowly missing out on qualification in 2015, Pliskova has balanced her schedule this year with ample breaks. "Last year was totally different. I spent the whole season on the Road to Singapore, by the end, I was playing badly. So I didn't make it," she told the WTA.

The indoor hardcourt in Singapore should suit her attacking approach. Under the roof, her serve will be lethal and very few players will wish to be on the receiving end of it. Not only is she debuting in the singles, she will also be playing in the doubles with German partner Julia Goerges.

Starting on 23 October, Kerber is the top seed at the ETA finals, and Agnieszka Radwanska the defending champion. Thanks to Serena's withdrawal, Pliskova is seeded fourth. Pliskova is enjoying the season of her career and she enters the WTA Finals not as the perpetual dark horse, but as a strong contender for the prestigious crown.

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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2016 20:11:32 IST