Karolina Pliskova takes on Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on Wednesday in the quarter-finals of the 2017 Australian Open.
It’s been a career-changing six months for Pliskova, who has gone from under-achieving talent to a genuine Grand Slam contender. Pliskova is aware of all the hype around her, but the Czech has refused to get carried away, wisely opting to stay in the moment.
“I just don't want to think about it that much," she said.
"These expectations and this talking doesn't win me the matches. So I think I still have to play good to win the matches..."
She has definitely played very well in Melbourne, but perhaps more impressive has been her mental resilience, which saw her recover from 5-2 down (trailing by a double break) against an inspired Jelena Ostapenko in the third round to beat the Latvian in a thrilling contest. It all began to come together for Pliskova in Cincinnati last year, when she scored consecutive victories over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber on her way to the title. She carried that form into the US Open- defeating both Williams’ sisters on her way to a runner-up finish, and while she tailed off at the back end of the year, she was back to her best in Brisbane at the start of 2017.
Pliskova’s victory in Brisbane fuelled talks of a potential run to the Australian Open title, and she made a rapid start in Melbourne, dropping just four games in her opening two matches against Sara Sorribes Tormo and Anna Blinkova- admittedly not the most threatening opposition- but she really came up against it against Ostapenko in the third round. The Latvian teenager took the first set, but Pliskova stormed through a second set bagel to apparently restore order. However, Ostapenko raised her level again, hitting winners all over the park, especially on the backhand, beyond her static Czech opponent. Ostapenko looked to have the match wrapped up when she served for it at 5-2, with the supposed insurance of a double break in her locker, but the Latvian faltered at the finish line, and sensing the nerves, Pliskova launched a fight back and eventually took a gripping contest 10-8.
After that narrow escape, normal service was restored in the fourth round, with the world number five powering past home favourite, Daria Gavrilova in straight sets. Determined to avoid the sticky situation she found herself in the previous round, Pliskova jumped out of the blocks against Gavrilova, overwhelming the brave Australian with her huge serves and massive groundstrokes.
Lucic-Baroni is also playing the first Australian Open quarter-final in her career, but hers has been a very eventful career. The former teen prodigy reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon as a 16-year-old in 1999, but personal problems derailed her progress, as she wilted into tennis oblivion. After a lengthy hiatus from the sport, the Croatian has become a more consistence presence, with the 2017 Australian Open being her twentieth straight appearance at a Grand Slam main draw. Lucic-Baroni reached the second round in Melbourne in 1998- but didn’t win another match at the Australian Open until her 2017 surge. She missed the tournament for an extended period between 2001 and 2010.
There was little indication of Lucic-Baroni’s fairytale run when she opened her campaign with a hard-fought 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory over unheralded Chinese, Qiang Wang, but she really turned it on in the second round, outclassing Agnieszka Radwanska- the third seed- in straight sets. She then needed three sets to take out Greece’s Maria Sakkari, before ousting qualifier, Jennifer Brady in straight sets. The 34-year-old isn’t ready to end this dream run.
'It’s incredible. I always said I know I had the game," she said.
"I’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much... I hope nobody is going to pinch me and wake me up, because this is just incredible... I’m a tough little cookie and really, really stubborn. When I want something I will work really hard to get it.’
Lucic-Baroni and Pliskova have shared their four career meetings, with their last two encounters going the distance. Their most recent meeting was in Wuhan in 2015, when Pliskova edged a 7-6 5-7 7-6 contest.