Will Karolina Pliskova finally take the risks needed to win her biggest career title at the WTA Finals?
In a year where she is leading the WTA Tour in title wins with four, it is perhaps surprising to think Karolina Pliskova is not the stand-out favourite for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
The Czech has, looking at the bare match statistics, had an outstanding year and as the world number two, should be full of confidence heading into the last big event of the year.
But, the pressure which comes with not having won a WTA Finals or a Grand Slam before still looms large for the 27-year-old and she could have inner doubts if she reaches the semi-finals, just like she has done for the last two years.
In this part of the ‘Countdown to Shenzhen’ series, we profile Pliskova’s season so far and what she can change to win when the pressure is really on in the latter stages of the tournament.
All-round consistency gives opponent immense problems
With a height of 6ft 1in, Pliskova’s serve has always been a weapon on the court. Movement, understandable for a player as tall as her, was always her achilles' heel.
While that remains the case to a certain extent, the Czech has improved on many aspects of her game resulting in some exceptional performances.
The added power in groundstrokes after a heavy serve, using variety in the type of spin on shots and going to the net when possible are all things Pliskova has added to her game.
The evidence of these improvements can be seen in some statistics this year. In 2019, she has won 69.4% of the sets she has played, which is the highest percentage in her career so far. She has had 28 straight sets wins this year.
Her service hold percentage has been over 74% in the last five years, which is to be expected, but winning 43.9% of return points is something she has not done before in her career.
This all provides evidence to showcase her all-round prowess and ability to succeed in any conditions, but why does she not get over the line when the pressure is really on?
Sometimes consistency is not enough
Despite the upcoming WTA Finals not being a Grand Slam, it is pertinent to look at Pliskova’s losses in the majors this year. With the quality of opponent at the WTA Finals, every match could be considered the quality of at least a Grand Slam quarter-final.
So in the four losses Pliskova has suffered in majors this year, the statistics actually suggest she did not play a single bad match. Just a few more unforced errors than winners, a good winning percentage at the net and a relatively good serving percentage.
But, a common theme is that her opponent took far more risks and it paid off. In Australia, Noami Osaka committed 33 unforced errors, which was 11 more than Pliskova. But the eventual Australian Open winner hit 36 more winners than the Czech.
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In Paris, both Pliskova and Petra Martic did not go all out on the attack but Pliskova’s serve let her down with nine double faults. The match at Wimbledon against Karolina Muchova was exhilarating, as Muchova won 13-11 in the final set. But once again, Pliskova had fewer winners and fewer unforced errors, not allowing herself perhaps to go all out for the win.
In her final major defeat of the year in New York against Briton Johanna Konta, which was once again a three-set thriller, Konta had a positive winner-to-unforced-error ratio, and as you may have guessed it, Pliskova’s was negative.
So despite having all the tools for success at the highest level, Pliskova’s apparent fear of failure is letting her down. She will have to overcome that if she is to win the biggest title of her career next week.