Pliskova becomes the latest big name to fall

  • Suzi Petkovski

Another big women’s name has fallen in the third round, an off-kilter Karolína Pliskova ousted Saturday by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova first up at Rod Laver Arena.

The No.2 seed’s 7-6(4) 7-6(3) loss in a fluctuating battle lasting two hours and 25 minutes follows the dramatic Friday exits of former champions Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki.

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AO2016 winner Angelique Kerber and 2018 finalist Simona Halep sidestepped the mayhem to advance. Kerber overcame Camila Giorgi 6-2 6-7(4) 6-3 at Margaret Court Arena, while Halep had the cleanest passage, 6-1 6-4 over Yulia Putintseva.

Saddled with the tag of the best player minus a major title, 27-year-old Pliskova will carry that dubious honour into a 32nd Grand Slam, disappointing herself against an opponent who had taken a set from the rangy Czech in six previous meetings.

Semifinalist last January, when she famously toppled Serena Williams from match points and 5-1 down, today’s tentative, misfiring figure was not the same imposing Ace Queen who blasted through Kristina Mladenovic and Laura Siegemund without the loss of a set.

The Russian sensed early on that if ever she was going to topple her younger nemesis it would be today. In a face-off between former AO junior champions and formidable ball strikers, Pavlyuchenkova went ahead 4-1 but wasteful on big points, kept Pliskova in the contest.

The Czech levelled for 4-all but couldn't maintain momentum, squandering no less than five break opportunities that would have put her 6-5 ahead and in the lead for the first time. In the tiebreak, it was Pavlyuchenkova who had to overcome a 0-2 deficit, finally clinching a marathon 75-minute opener when Pliskova put a limp forehand in the net. 

The second set was a grinding repeat; Pavlyuchenkova gaining the early break for 2-0 and surrendering the advantage for 3-3 as Pliskova again threatened to pick up her flagging confidence and somehow crash through.

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Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova celebrates against Karolína Pliskova

This time serving first, the Czech at 6-5 had two set points on the Pavlyuchenkova serve. The Russian braved two forehand winners on each and forced the tiebreak despite three sputtering double faults in that game.

From 2-all in the breaker, the No.30 seed hit three winners and brought up her first match point with a deep return that caught Pliskova flat-footed. Another netted forehand from the Czech ended a miserable outing.

“I don’t know what to say; I’m still in the match, still focusing on the next point,” said the amped-up Russian, eyeing a third AO quarterfinal and now coached by Sam Sumyk, who guided Victoria Azarenka to the title here in 2012-13. 

“To beat Karolína for the first time, it’s amazing.”

Pavlyuchenkova next takes on No.17 seed Kerber. Coming off an indifferent year, the former No.1 romped to a 6-2 first set against the crash-or-crash-through Giorgi. Undeterred, the Italian kept pressing for winners and took the tiebreak 7-4 as Kerber betrayed some frustration. 

The world No.102 couldn’t sustain the barrage, and finished with 65 unforced errors. Kerber made a comfortable early break for 3-1 and maintained the advantage to enter the round of 16 at Melbourne Park for a fifth time.

Halep had her easiest win so far over the No.38 Putintseva, who was showing the effects of an emotional three-set upset of 2019 semifinalist Danielle Collins. The Wimbledon champion next faces No.16 seed Elise Mertens or American CiCi Bellis.

“I’m ready,” said the Romanian, upset by Serena Williams in the fourth round last January, as the world No.1. 

“Really, really happy that I’m in the second week now.”