Will Karolina Pliskova make her first BNP Paribas Open final, or will it be a triumphant return to the title match for Svetlana Kuznetsova after nine years?
Back in the BNP Paribas Open semifinals, world no. 3 Karolina Pliskova takes aim at reaching the Indian Wells final as she faces resurgent veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova on Friday.
Twelve months on from her first run to the Indian Wells semifinals, Pliskova is back in the final four of the BNP Paribas Open. This run has been a totally different challenge to the last one – then, the tall Czech was still largely an untried quality, seeded 18th and defeated Ana Ivanovic, Johanna Konta and Daria Kasatkina to reach her first ever Premier Mandatory-level semifinal, losing to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.
Twelve months on, Pliskova returned to Indian Wells as the world no. 3, having announced herself with a runner-up finish at the US Open in 2016 which came via victories over both Williams sisters, and found herself at the top of the draw (although still seeded third) after Serena Williams’s withdrawal forced a reshuffle. Much was expected from Pliskova with her high seeding and the fact that she has been one of the most in-form players of the season so far, with her Australian Open quarterfinal finish and titles in Brisbane and Doha - and she has lived up to expectations despite not playing her best tennis: Coming back from 1-6 down against Monica Puig to win in three in her opener, Pliskova edged past Irina-Camelia Begu in straights before benefiting from a retirement from Timea Bacsinszky, who was 1-5 down, in the fourth round. Against French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, Pliskova led 4-1 in the first set and 5-2 in the second but Muguruza kept mounting determined comebacks and in the end, it needed two tie breaks for the Czech to get it done – but Pliskova stayed clinical, and stayed dominant in her head-to-head against Muguruza, closing out the match 7-6(2), 7-6(5).
‘Definitely the best match for me in this tournament,’ Pliskova confirmed afterwards. ‘Also, like, it was against good player, so the level ultimately goes a little bit more up.
‘I just feel always quite good against her. Doesn't matter in which shape I am. I didn't have that good matches in the tournament, but with her, always, the level is a little bit higher.’
Pliskova is on a six-match winning streak in WTA Tour semifinals, stretching back to Prague last April when she lost to compatriot Lucie Safarova, and both times she has reached the semifinals so far in 2017, she has gone on to win the title. The title match at the BNP Paribas Open would be the second-biggest final of Pliskova’s career after last year’s US Open, and would be a powerful statement that the Czech intends to entrench herself in the top five – but it won’t be remotely easy.
Resurgent veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova has been to the BNP Paribas Open final twice, making back-to-back title matches in 2007 and 2008 (finishing runner-up to Daniela Hantuchova and Ana Ivanovic respectively) – but has failed to make it back to the quarterfinals in her last eight appearances, including last year when she lost her opening match to Coco Vandeweghe.
That Kuznetsova has made it back to the semifinals at Indian Wells is testament to the way that the two-time Grand Slam champion has revived her career in the last year or so. Ranked well outside the top 50 in 2012, Kuznetsova spent most of 2013-15 inside the top 30, pulling off the occasional big run – like finishing runner-up at the Premier Mandatory-level Mutua Madrid Open in 2015 – but never really putting anything consistent together. Then came 2016, when the Russian – now moving into her thirties – started the year with a title at the Apia International Sydney, going on to beat Serena Williams and finish runner-up at the Miami Open to Azarenka, make the semifinals of Prague, Tianjin and Wuhan and book a place at the WTA Finals Singapore with a last-minute triumph at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. In Singapore, Kuznetova battled her way past Agnieszka Radwanska and Pliskova, each in three sets, before her exertions finally caught up with her and she lost to Dominika Cibulkova in three sets in the semifinals to end the year world no. 9.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of early defeats for Kuznetsova in 2016, but by her standards the season was a model of consistency and she seems revived and newly passionate about her tennis again, perhaps motivated by the sense that she has limited years left as a pro. Coming into Indian Wells, 2017 had been decent but not great for her – Kuznetsova was a quarterfinalist in Brisbane and St Petesburg and fell in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who also beat her in Sydney – but she has been playing great at the BNP Paribas Open, dropping just one set on her way to the semifinals. In her last two matches, against Caroline Garcia and Pavlyuchenkova (who had beaten Kuznetsova twice in 2017), the Russian faced players who had been on fire earlier in the tournament and kept her nerve when theirs disintegrated, in both cases taking their serves along with it. Kuznetsova had her own serve issues against Garcia, but she has been returning superbly and was particularly impressive in a 6-3, 6-2 win over Pavlyuchenkova.
‘I lost [to her] two times this year, so today was kind of an important match,’ Kuznetsova said after her win over Pavlyuchenkova. ‘I know I felt much better on the court. It was good to focus.’
Will Kuznetsova’s resurgence extend to her first appearance in an Indian Wells final in nine years? Pliskova and Kuznetsova have played twice with both matches going to three sets, the Czech winning on her way to the Cincinnati title last summer and Kuznetsova clinching victory in a third-set tie break in Singapore in the autumn.
‘We had two matches two times, three-setters, and two times was really tough,’ Pliskova said. ‘Definitely I'll take positives from the matches what I've played.
‘I just keep the same game plan and have to be aggressive and not going to her forehand. And don't let her play, otherwise she's going to let me run. That's what she probably wants me to do.’
By ‘let me run’, Pliskova undoubtedly means ‘make me run’, always the smart play against the very tall Czech whose movement, although improved, remains the weakest aspect of her game. A strong serving performance backed up by well-executed first-strike tennis could see Pliskova through, but it will have to be a very impressive one.
Pliskova vs Kuznetsova is scheduled on Friday at 8.30pm local/3.30am GMT