Sportswriter and broadcaster David Fearnhead, Women’s Tennis Blog’s friend and long-time contributor, shares his talking points from the opening day of the Australian Open. He now presents the sports radio show The Only Game in Town every Thursday night on Ribble FM.
At the start of the year, when I was asked on my radio show who I’d put my money on for the Australian Open, I decided to go with a dark horse. Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber would be the obvious favourites. As for Agnieszka Radwanska, well, she’s always a little too suspect in Australia, and I still wasn’t sure of Simona Halep’s fitness. Dominika Cibulkova could be a danger, as could Jo Konta, even more so after her fantastic start to the year.
And right there in the middle of them was Karolina Pliskova. Ok, she had never gotten further than the third round, and had done far better in the doubles – reaching the semifinals last year. However, her showing at the US Open last year, where she finished runner-up, was enough to lead me to believe that she could be the one to make an upset.
Ask me who I thought would win, and I’d have probably have gone for Serena, but I like a punt and Karolina seemed worthy of a flutter. Going out in the first round of the doubles didn’t have me worried. Now she could concentrate on singles without the distraction. She cruised through the first two rounds of the singles, dropping just four games in her entire time on court. Jelena Ostapenko is a gutsy player with plenty of sass on court, who I thought shouldn’t really cause her too much of a problem in the third round. I thought.
4-6 down in the first I took notice, but wasn’t unduly worried. When Karolina came back to win the second for a bagel, I assumed the first set had just been a blip. It was only when she was match point down with seemingly an endless stream of match points to face did I begin to feel nervous.
Then I remembered two things.
Firstly, she’s Czech. I don’t know what it is about the Czech people, but they don’t panic easily. When their backs are against the wall, they seem to find a way out of it. Look at Lucie Safarova, who faced match point nine times against Yanina Wickmayer, and still came through as the winner. She may have that cute babyface with the infectious smile, but behind those doll-like eyes is a steely determination. I’d have fancied her to go far, had it not been for the fact she would face Serena in round two.
The second thing I remembered was Angelique Kerber’s first round last year. Many seem to have forgotten that her amazing winning run to the Australian Open title in 2016 began by being match point down to Misaki Doi in the first round.
So, next up for Pliskova is home favourite Daria Gavrilova, a player who seems to feed off the crowd and whose foot-speed and willingness to go for her shots have propelled her into the second week as the only Aussie. Against Timea Bacsinszky she frequently hit long, and ran herself in circles. For a while it seemed that the patience of the Swiss had unpicked her game, only for the Australian’s relentless enthusiasm to find a way through.
If Pliskova can find her way past the home favourite, then I’m confident she can also find a way past either Brady or Lucic-Baroni. The only question is whether her fellow Czech Barbora Stycova can achieve the upset of the tournament by knocking out Serena. Though all this could be immaterial, because maybe, just maybe, an unexpected Brit will be holding all the trophy at the end of this competition. Could Konta make up for Murray’s loss?