Karolina Pliskova seeks a sixth consecutive victory over Garbine Muguruza; and a second straight semi-final at the BNP Paribas Open when she confronts the Spaniard on Wednesday.
It has hardly been Pliskova’s most impressive week, but it is great testament to the improvements she has made, especially mentally, she has dug out victories while not playing at her best.
After being shifted to the top of the draw following the late withdrawal of Serena Williams, Pliskova was tasked with a tricky opener against Olympic champion, Monica Puig. The upset looked on when Puig raced through the opening set, and then opened up a 3-0 lead in the decider, but an out-of-sorts Pliskova won six of the final seven games to squeeze out a win.
Without being overly convincing, she was much better against Romania’s Irina Begu in the third round, hitting 21 winners against 18 unforced errors to close out a 6-4 7-6 victory in just over two hours. Begu actually served for the second set, but Pliskova saved two set points before eventually taking the set; and the match on the tie break.
After being pushed hard in the opening two rounds, Pliskova finally caught a bit of a break in the fourth round, albeit in unfortunate circumstances for Timea Bacsinszky, who was forced to retire while trailing 5-1 in the first set because of a left wrist injury.
"I felt my game pretty good today finally. I'm happy it's still improving, although today was not really a test, you know? But still, I felt fine today, even since this morning", Pliskova said after booking her quarter final ticket.
Pliskova is in the midst of an excellent season, which has already yielded titles in Brisbane and Doha, she also got to the quarter finals of the Australian Open, her best ever performance in the first Grand Slam of the year. She is on a 18-2 run for the season, including a couple of victories in the Fed Cup. Her only other defeat was to Kristina Mladenovic in her opening match in Dubai, but that was a few days after she had come through a rain-affected clustered late schedule on her way to the Doha title the previous week.
Pliskova is seeking a return to the semi-finals at Indian Wells, one year after she suffered a three-set loss to eventual champion, Victoria Azarenka, and the one remaining obstacle blocking her passage is a woman she has dominated in recent times, Garbine Muguruza.
Muguruza made an encouraging start to the season with a semi-final in Brisbane, but her progress has been hindered by a couple of injury-enforced retirements. She retired from her Brisbane semi with a right thigh injury, while a left Achilles injury ended her participation in Dubai midway through the opening round against Katerina Bondarenko.
Amidst all of that, she was blown away in the quarter finals of the Australian Open by CoCo Vandeweghe, and fell in the second round in Doha to Shuai Zhang.
Muguruza eased though her Indian Wells opener against Kirsten Flipkens, but the Spaniard really came up against it against American teenager, Kayla Day in the third round. The world number seven overcame the loss of the first set, and a very tight second set, before easing through the decider. Next up was a fourth round tie against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, who entered the match on a tour-leading 13-match winning streak. Muguruza came through that as well, but only after recovering from a second-set blowout.
Having ended a three-match losing streak against Svitolina, Muguruza will attempt to snap a five-match winless run against Wednesday’s opponent, Pliskova. The Spaniard understands the magnitude of the task head.
"I think it's one of the toughest matches I can have now. I think she's playing very good. She has been very consistent, and I have been watching her... She has her game, which is very aggressive with good serve. So I'm just going to go out there and try to do my game, try to be concentrate. I know it's a tough match... I cannot do more than give it all there."
Muguruza actually won the first match in this rivalry, coming through a three-setter at Roland Garros in 2013, but Pliskova has been the dominant force since then, registering victories in Dubai and Indian Wells in 2015; Cincinnati and Singapore in 2016; and the Fed Cup in 2017.
It is noteworthy that Pliskova’s five victories have all come on hard courts. Three of those wins have been decided in straight sets. As is often the case between two aggressive power-hitters, this one will come down to who keeps the errors down. They are both well-equipped to generate winners off both wings, with Muguruza getting the slight edge on the backhand wing, while Pliskova has the more dependable forehand. However, where the Czech really owns this match-up is with the serve. Muguruza is also capable of serving big, but the Spaniard is far less consistent from the line, and that is where the tie will likely be decided.
I’m going for Pliskova to complete a sixth straight victory over Muguruza, and take her place in the Indian Wells semi-finals for the second straight season.