Wimbledon 2021 - Karolina Pliskova looks to finally lock up that elusive Grand Slam title

One point away from clinching her spot in the Wimbledon final for the first time in her career, Karolina Pliskova errantly tossed the ball in the air. Before she attempted her serve again, she smiled and let out a brief laugh.

It was as if she knew what would happen next.

Seconds later, she delivered an ace to seal the victory over Aryna Sabalenka 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to advance to her first major final in five years.

There was no stopping the smile spread widely across her face now as she raised her arms in triumph.

After several seasons of being a stalwart presence in the second week of majors, the 29-year-old Pliskova has struggled on the biggest stages since reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open in 2019, having not advanced past the third round since the tour's restart in 2020. She entered Wimbledon on the heels of a few losses, including a second-round exit at the French Open and early losses in both of her grass lead-in events. She dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since 2016.

Despite being the tournament's No. 8 seed and a 16-time champion on the WTA tour, Pliskova wasn't seen as a threat to contend for the title at Wimbledon -- she had previously never advanced past the round of 16 at the All England Club.

Even Pliskova herself didn't have high hopes.

"I can't believe it because somehow coming into this tournament, the dream was to make the second week, because I [haven't been] in the second week for a while," Pliskova said. "Never I thought about ... [making] the final."

Now, only Ashleigh Barty stands in the way of her first major title.

Pliskova seemed all but destined to hoist a Grand Slam trophy following her run to the US Open final in 2016. After beating Venus Williams in the fourth round, she upset tournament favorite Serena Williams in straight sets in the semifinals. Fans were shocked, but Pliskova wasn't.

"I had a goal today: to beat Serena," Pliskova said in her on-court interview at the time. "And that's what I did. I don't believe it. Actually, I do believe it. I knew I could beat anyone if I'm playing my game."

She lost to then-No. 1-ranked Angelique Kerber 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in the final, but she proved she could compete with the sport's best. During her postmatch news conference, she was asked how the experience would help her the next time she was in a major final.

"The next Grand Slam, I'm going to try to play like I was playing here from the first round to the last one," she responded.

It all seemed so certain. But nothing is guaranteed in the unpredictable world of women's tennis.

To open the 2017 season, Pliskova won the title in Brisbane and reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. She took home another trophy in Qatar and made a semifinal run at the French Open. Despite a second-round exit at Wimbledon, her previous results and a grass-court title at Eastbourne propelled her to the No. 1 ranking in the world -- a spot she held for eight weeks.

At the time, she said the way she earned the ranking wasn't the way she had dreamed of as a kid. She was happy to reach it, but she wanted to get there with a big victory, not because other people lost

She became one of just six women in history to reach the milestone without winning a major. (Simona Halep joined the list soon after.)

Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo won Grand Slams after achieving the honor, and Caroline Wozniacki and Halep both did as well in 2018, but Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina never did. Initially, it seemed as if Pliskova would ultimately land with the former group and legitimize the ranking. But as the years have passed and the results have slowed, it has become something of a debate among fans -- would she ever do it? did she deserve the ranking? -- and a topic she has been asked about countless times. Being the only active player in the elusive club hasn't eased the pressure or expectations.

Now, she finally has another chance to change history and perceptions. She's currently expected to rise back into the top 10 of the next rankings at No. 7, and a victory on Saturday would lift her to No. 4.

And while it's not No. 1, this time there would be no discussion if she deserves her ranking, considering the rather unfavorable draw she had at the All England Club. Pliskova has had to earn every win throughout the fortnight in a draw that did her no favors. She opened play against Tamara Zidansek, who just reached the French Open semifinals last month, and took on 2019 US Open quarterfinalist Donna Vekic in the second round. She faced red-hot Ludmilla Samsonova, who was coming off of her first career title in Berlin, in the fourth round.

Despite the tough opposition, Pliskova hadn't dropped a set entering the semifinals -- and no opponent had won more than three games in a set against her.

"You need to win [a] couple [of] matches to feel this way and to play the best tennis," Pliskova said. "It's tough to really play [well] in the first round, especially after you lose [a] couple [of] times in the first rounds, not really playing that amazing. I think I was playing also earlier this year super tough players, they always went deep in the tournament. I think I was close to playing a good level, but somehow I was not able to really win all those matches.

"It's not that I would be playing horrible, sometimes you're just missing a little bit and you're not doing anything wrong. I think sometimes just to hang in there is super important, which I did. I didn't really change anything. ... I think you need luck. [I'm] super happy that it work out because we [were] trying for a while just to play good."

In Thursday's semifinal against Sabalenka, the tournament's No. 2 seed and the favorite entering the match, both players brought a high level from the start. Pliskova had a crucial double fault in the final game of the first set, and Sabalenka seized control, taking the opener.

Later, Pliskova said she was frustrated and knew there had been plenty of chances to win the set, but she didn't let her emotions get the best of her. Sabalenka said she felt the momentum shift with a dominant service game from Pliskova in the second set and there was nothing she could do from that point onward.

"After that, she just returned like crazy, like really good, and I couldn't do anything," Sabalenka said. "I mean, I feel like in [those] games, in the second set, when she broke me, and in the third set, I think in [those] games I did everything I could. Overall I did everything I could today, but she just played really good. I mean, too good. I did my best."

Pliskova was broken just once in the match and had 13 aces. She will need to bring that same game and intensity against Barty, the current world No. 1 and 2019 French Open champion, on Saturday.

The two have played seven times throughout their careers, with Barty owning a 5-2 edge. While Barty won their last meeting, 2-6, 6-1, 7-5, in the quarterfinals at Stuttgart in April, Pliskova was victorious in their lone major match at the US Open in 2018.

"She has a Grand Slam, of course she wants to win another one," Pliskova said. "I'm not expecting anything easy."

Pliskova started working with Sascha Bajin, Naomi Osaka's former coach, ahead of the 2021 season. She said he believed from the start of the tournament she could win it, and he reminded her of such after the win against Sabalenka.

Pliskova, who hasn't won a tournament since Brisbane in January 2020, didn't seem quite as convinced, nor did she didn't wax poetic as Barty did about what the title would mean to her. However, it's clear she is excited for the challenge and happy to be playing another match.

"It's a final, anything can happen," Pliskova said on Thursday. "I know [Barty] has a Grand Slam, but also for her [this] is the first Wimbledon final. I think we both have good chances. It's going to be hopefully good match to watch as well, because with her it's always interesting.

"We're going to see what's going to happen."