One to watch on Thursday
Osaka v Azarenka: Deep dive
No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova impressively brushed aside qualifier Kristina Kucova in straight sets.
With ruthless efficiency, Karolina Pliskova, a semi-finalist at Roland-Garros in 2017, beat qualifier Kristina Kucova of Slovakia to ease through to a third-round meeting with No.31 seed Petra Martic and remain on track in her quest to win a maiden Grand Slam title.
Increasing her tour-leading ace tally to 266 this year, the No.2 seed’s 6-2, 6-2 victory on Court Simonne-Mathieu in under an hour was based on her impregnable weapon, with 76 per cent accuracy achieved on her first serve and 81 per cent of first-serve points won.
Striking 29 winners, often with her lethal forehand, this was the sort of emphatic form Pliskova needed to display to consolidate her status as a title contender potential which has been much touted following her championship run in Rome. Her victory at the Foro Italico brought a third career clay-court title, which put her in an exclusive club: so far, only Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens have won multiple titles on the WTA Tour in 2019.
The highest-ranked player Pliskova defeated en route to the trophy in Rome, however, was world no.37 Sofia Kenin. Some suggest this undermines her claim here, but given Pliskova’s consistency in the majors – she has reached the quarter-finals or better at seven of the last 10 Grand Slams (more than any other player on tour) – the brusque dismissals of first Madison Brengle and now Kucova in the early rounds add weight to her undoubted promise at Roland-Garros.
“When I'm winning, everything’s just going easy, I'm playing without thinking, which is the best,” Pliskova said. “I feel confident after I made the title in Rome, so there is no reason why I should not be feeling great.”
Throughout 56 minutes of play on Wednesday, Pliskova’s power game looked effortless. Since Conchita Martinez has increased her coaching commitment to a full-time presence, the 27-year-old Czech’s trademark flat groundstrokes have gained in nuance; overall, there is more variety in her arsenal to add to that daunting power.
Match point was a case in point. Set up with a swinging forehand volley, Pliskova sealed the win with a whipped cross-court winner after chasing down a Kucova drop shot.
Choosing to hit with reigning champion Simona Halep in pre-tournament practice also hints at intent as well as content.
“I always enjoy to play with her, it’s a guarantee that the practice is going to be a good level, because she always plays good. She always fights in the practice, but on the other hand, it's relaxed. We can laugh. We can even talk about stuff, not about tennis," says Pliskova.
Never one to relish the limelight, Pliskova nevertheless took a winner’s twirl after defeating Kucova, acknowledging the applause from the four corners of Court Simonne-Mathieu, before signing autographs and setting off back to the dressing room. So far, so good.
Petra Martic will be a sterner test in the next round. And if she does indeed progress to the final, she has a chance of becoming world No.1 (though she would need to lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen if Naomi Osaka reaches the semi final). Watch this space.