In one of the more dramatic matches of Australian Open 2019, Karolina Pliskova stunned Serena Williams on Wednesday to take her place in her first Melbourne Park semifinal.
The Czech trailed Williams 5-1 in the third set and saved four match points with brave play to eventually triumph 6-4 4-6 7-5.
What made the victory all the more significant was that Pliskova had let slip a set and a break lead and looked both mentally and physically beaten as the 23-time major champion charged towards the finish line in the final set.
“I didn't have many chances in the third set set, I was a bit mentally down,” Pliskova said. "Then suddenly I got a chance too. That's how it is in tennis. You need luck, of course, because this is I think not happening often, maybe once in life.
“But I went for it. I just said, ‘Like whatever. Maybe this can be over, but let's just try this game’.
“I was with the wind, which kind of helped me little bit. I just went for my shots. She got a little bit shaky in the end so I took my chances and I won."
Rarely has a victory looked less likely.
Having wrested control of the match in the second set, Serena was looking increasingly sharp with her footwork and movement in the third – beginning to truly hurt Pliskova with the force of her shots.
Williams played a forehand return winner at full stretch to break for 3-1 – following that with a stare down the court for good measure – and then unleashed three consecutive aces to hold in the following game.
When she extended her lead to 5-1 by crushing an inside-out forehand return winner, there was nobody inside Rod Laver Arena, or watching on TV, or following along on social media, who could foresee any result other than Serena closing out victory to set up a tantalising semifinal against Naomi Osaka – a US Open final rematch.
But on her first match point in the serve game, with scores at 40-30, Williams rolled her left ankle mid-rally and lost the point. She double faulted on the next point, and then lost the game.
Williams never called for a medical time out, but perhaps she was rattled. And Pliskova became emboldened. The Czech held serve in the eighth game and then broke Williams to love in the ninth, closing the gap to 4-5.
Williams, however, steadied in the next game, smacking two winners and forcing an error on the next point to arrive at 15-40. But Pliskova saved both those match points with fearless hitting, and a fourth two points later to hold for 5-5.
Then Williams’ game unravelled.
Pliskova won the next seven straight points to arrive at triple match point, and although she missed the first two, she converted her third when Serena struck her 37th unforced error of the match.
“My ankle seems to be fine. I really hate calling the trainer out, to be honest. And at that point I didn't feel like I needed it or I didn't feel like it would be a big deal. So I just kept going,” Williams said. “Karolina literally played lights out starting 5-1, 40-30. Literally I've never seen anything like it.
“There's nothing I did wrong on those match points. I stayed aggressive. She just literally hit the lines on some of them. One she hit an ace, unreturnable serve.
“I can't say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.”
In the off-season, Pliskova’s coach Rennae Stubbs said that she had been working with her charge on maintaining her focus when she had built leads.
In her last meeting with Williams, in the 2018 US Open quarters, Pliskova lead 4-2 before losing eighth consecutive games on her way to a straight-sets loss. At the same stage of the Australian Open 12 months ago, Pliskova led Simona Halep 3-0 before losing 10 of the next 11 games to crash out.
“She's just gotta learn to get out there and if she starts well, keep going,” Stubbs said. “She did it against Halep, she did it against Serena; she just needs to keep it going and keep her concentration.”