The U.S. vs. Czech Republic Fed Cup final, with all the notable absentees on the American side, was headed towards a mismatch.
But that matchup got a little bit tighter Saturday as Czech No. 2 Karolina Pliskova bowed out with the calf issue that was visible during last week’s WTA Finals in Singapore.
“Already in Singapore there were days when I felt pain even when walking and I felt terrible. But I didn’t attach much weight to it. I was looking forward to the final very much, but after the examination my start is not possible,” Pliskova wrote on social media.
“I’m really sorry about that. Our team is strong enough!”
If you add Pliskova’s absence to the relative lack of form shown by Czech No. 1 Petra Kvitova this fall, you would think the U.S. team of neophytes, led by Alison Riske, would like their chances a little better even if they’re on the road.
Even if those two didn’t play at all, the other members of the squad (No. 31 Katerina Siniakova and No. 33 Barbora Strycova, both incredible doubles players as well) are still ranked higher than the top American, No. 35 Danielle Collins.
Barbora Krejcikova, who with Siniakova will finish as the co-No. 1 ranked doubles player in the world, was named to replace Pliskova.
That only makes their doubles team stronger (if it comes to that), while freeing up the clever Strycova to play singles.
From the very first day in Singapore, Pliskova had her right calf tightly wrapped. And from what she wrote, the pain was significantly more than appeared on the court, where she wouldn’t have wanted to give her opponents an edge.
It had been yeowoman’s work to even qualify for Singapore. The Czech took a wild card into an event in Tianjin, China after the Premier Mandatory in Beijing. And then she flew to Moscow to play there before a combination of wins and losses by other aspirants finally guaranteed her qualification.
Despite the injury, Pliskova had a great week. She won two of her three round-robin matches, succumbing only to eventual champion Elina Svitolina (in three sets). It was enough to qualify for the semifinals.
She won the first set 6-0 against Sloane Stephens in that semifinal. But the Czech had squeezed every step she could out of that leg, and Stephens ended up prevailing in three.
When you get the top eight players in the world this season – well, eight of nine, with the absence of the injured Simona Halep – it’s hard to consider any loss a true upset.
That’s valid even if the winner is seeded lower than the player she defeated. Because in the big picue, they’re all top-10 players.
Still, the opening night at the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore Sunday did produce two … surprises.
First up to open the event, in its last go-round in Singapore, China were No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and No. 6 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
Two factors were working against Svitolina coming in. The first was that her head-to-head against Kvitova was 1-7. And after Svitolina defeated the Czech in their first career meeting in Cincinnati in 2014, Kvitova has dropped just one set in those seven victories.
The second issue was that second half of the 24-year-old’s season has been a struggle. The Rome champion couldn’t cement her spot in the final eight until the very last minute.
The stat sheet might have been a bit of a mess, but Svitolina came out at the top end of a 6-3, 6-3 score that gets her tournament off to a great start.
“Winning this match definitely gives me lots of confidence. I want to take this as one to go forward, and for all those people and haters that were saying that I don’t deserve to be here and I’m, you know, not good,” Svitolina told the media in Singapore. “Until the next match, I can really enjoy this win.”
Players don’t often bring up the abuse they get on social media, unless specifically asked about it. But Svitolina brought up the haters.
Her Instagram account is inexplicably full of nastiness on a regular basis. Some might be because she’s struggled to win matches lately, so the gamblers are on her. Some of it is because while she’s not Russian, she’s close by. But it boggles the imagination to think anyone could have that much hate for this charming , hard-working pro.
For Kvitova, who can be brilliant one day and error-prone the next, it was a matter of being more the latter.
Calf-strapped Pliskova beats Wozniacki
In the Sunday nightcap, Karolina Pliskova was all over defending Singapore champion Caroline Wozniacki.
The 6-2, 6-4 victory, a score that makes it look closer than it felt, was made more respectable at the end by Wozniacki’s trademark never-quit work ethic.
“Especially against Caroline, you really have to beat her because she’s not gonna give you anything much. Although she was missing pretty much everything in the first set, in the second set she played much better, and I had to really fight for it. I was just happy that I close it,” Pliskova said.
Pliskova, who had her right leg wrapped from just below the knee down to mid-calf, was as solid as could be.
She saved all 10 break-point chances against her own serve, and converted on 3-of-10 on Wozniacki’s serve.
“I had some break points, and I didn’t make it, and so I was getting a little bit frustrated with myself. I was, like, ‘Maybe that’s the time to call her, the positive woman,’ Pliskova joked about Aussie Rennae Stubbs, who is back in her corner this week and apparently into 2019. “And she was actually positive, as always. She said, ‘Look, you’re still break up,’ which was true, actually. So I didn’t panic and I closed it.”
This was another rivalry that was technically tilted in favour of the runner-up, who was seeded No. 7 to Wozniacki’s No. 2.
Although after Wozniacki took their first three meetings (all in three sets), they’ve been trading the honors back and forth.
After not meeting for three years, the two met six times in 2017, the most recent of which came in the Singapore semifinals a year ago. Wozniacki won that one on her way to the title.
That was the last time they played each other.
More match tough
If there was a connecting thread between Pliskova and Svitolina, it was that because both only qualified a few days ago, they have played plenty of tennis over the last few weeks.
That was not the case for Kvitova and Wozniacki, who wrapped up their spots earlier.
Kvitova last played in Beijing three weeks ago. And she has played just three matches since the US Open. Wozniacki played a full three-tournament Asian swing, and ran through the field without dropping a set to win the Premier Mandatory in Beijing (although she didn’t have to defeat anyone inside the top 20).
But that was more than two weeks ago. And she went home in between.
Pliskova believes the last-minute play is a net positive even with the rushed arrival and limited time to get over jet lag, or even to practice on these specific courts.
“You always feel better by coming on the court by having a lot of matches in the last few weeks. So I feel like that’s important, but not only with me but I think with everybody. It’s true that when Domi (Cibulkova) won, she was playing until the last moment, (Caroline) Garcia, (Svetlana) Kuznetsova, too,” Pliskova said.
“There is a lot of indoor tournaments the weeks before, so you can really get used to it here, and the matches can really help you to get the confidence back from just playing. Knowing you have to play three matches can help, too.”
Pliskova and Svitolina will meet on Tuesday, preceded by Kvitova and Wozniacki.
In the end, the WTA’s season finale in Singapore was a microcosm of the season on the women’s circuit.
One day, a player looked like a world beater.
The next day, she looked as though she didn’t belong anywhere near the top.
Poor followed very good and was followed by average in the order we came to expect in a topsy-turvy 2017.
But in the end, it was the two most seasoned players who came through.
Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams handled the almost-unplayable slowness of the Singapore court. They handled the round-robin format that seemed to stymie some of the younger players so programmed to the regular elimination format.
And if Wozniacki held up the big trophy at the end, it was Williams who continued to write the story of the season.
The 37-year-old didn’t win the Player of the Year award – even in this season, you really had to win a major to get that one. But she deserved it.
A renaissance season for Venus
That Williams will finish No. 1 in prize money for 2017 speaks to her results. Among the players in the top 100, Williams played fewer weeks this year than anyone not sidelined with longer-term injuries (Stephens, Keys et al) or a suspension (Sharapova).
Williams’s longevity, her unquenchable and ongoing thirst for the fight, and her willingness to leave it all on the court despite the challenges she deals with continued in the season finale.
The tennis, mercifully, improved throughout the week. Perhaps the court sped up a little with regular use. Perhaps the players gradually adjusted to it. But in the end, the surface was a significant sidebar.
It allowed Wozniacki, a premier defensive player, to have the time she needed to do what she does best. And yet, even the 27-year-old Dane felt the urgency to finish off some points more quickly than she might have otherwise.
It’s been a long season.
The surface also hurt Williams, who found herself in some marathons earlier in the week and by the second set of the final, had simply run out of legs.
On the doubles side, the decision last year to ditch the round-robin format used in singles and adopt a single-elimination format for the eight qualifying teams relegated it to a footnote for the week.
Had it not been for the retirement of Martina Hingis (who along with partner Yung-Jan Chan was eliminated in her second match, following her confirmation that this would indeed be her swan song), it might have passed virtually unnoticed.
For the four teams eliminated in the first round, the notion of working all season to get to Singapore, to fly all the way to Singapore, and to play just one match is a little unfair.
But it was made necessary by the fluctuating crowd support in Singapore.
The first edition in 2014 was a huge success on the attendance side. And while the WTA Tour kept the attendance figures on the down low in the intervening years (the numbers are not even available for 2016), they cut early-week day sessions. They cut the legends’ event. They reduced the “Rising Stars” component to a regional Asian event that also passed unnoticed.
(Remember 2015, when 22-year-old Caroline Garcia, already ranked No. 35, was considered a “rising star”? A little crazy. But a final between Garcia and Naomi Osaka that year certainly had more marquee value than this year’s finals between … Priska Nugroho and Pimrada Jattavapornvanit, and Megan Smith and Ya-Hsin Lee.)
Singapore results and grades
 Simona Halep
In her first round-robin match against Garcia, she looked like a world beater. It was Halep’s first match as the new world No. 1, and she played the part to perfection.
In her second, against Wozniacki, she won just two games. In her third, against Elina Svitolina, she won just seven games and was eliminated.
She finishes the season ranked No. 1. But she didn’t finish it playing like a No. 1. Her challenge in 2018 will be to marry up those two concepts.
 Garbiñe Muguruza
The WTA Tour Player of the Year, the Wimbledon champion, didn’t finish her season the way she wanted to.
She began the week well against overwhelmed Singapore rookie Jelena Ostapenko. But then, it unraveled with a desultory loss to Karolina Pliskova. The defeat at the hands of Williams was a bruising one. Still, it was a straight-sets loss.
The Spaniard has the mien and posture of a champion. But there’s something missing. It seemed as though she might be the one to come through and take a firm grasp on the top spot, in this window of opportunity caused by the absence of so many champions. But it didn’t happen. It’s an ongoing mystery.
 Karolina Pliskova
With one-week coach Rennae Stubbs on board, the on-court coaching consults definitely took an uptick – especially for non-Czech speakers. Pliskova had already co-opted Barbora Strycova coach Tomas Krupa for 2018, so it can go no further. But hopefully some of the other players in Singapore will give it some consideration, because Stubbs, a great athlete who mastered the entire court during her career, has something to offer.
Pliskova looked like a world-beater against a rusty Williams in her first round. In her second, against Muguruza, she looked great again. But then she was crushed by Ostapenko in what essentially was a meaningless match (beyond the money and ranking points). At 25, with plenty of experience behind her and in her second tour of Singapore, Pliskova definitely should have handled that “dead rubber” match with more aplomb.
 Elina Svitolina
Svitolina gets some slack because it was her first appearance at the Tour Finals. The players have to arrive early, do a lot of media and promotion. The entire routine of a tournament is completely turned upside down. The week before the matches actually begin must feel endless.
She was thrashed by Wozniacki in her first match. But she fought valiantly and played some very good tennis in her marathon loss to Garcia in her second match – arguably the match of the tournament.
But it was clear at that point that she’d had enough. Faced with the possibility that she wasn’t yet out of contention for the weekend after that match, her attitude and words suggested she’d just as soon not even entertain that notion. That’s not what you want to hear from one of the eight best players in the world.
 Venus Williams
In the absence of her sister Serena, you wonder how different this season would have looked without Williams’ throwback effort.
She created the spark in Singapore that was missing with the rest of the field (And that, despite a desultory and somewhat disrespectful effort in her press conferences; those on hand were only doing their jobs, and had travelled a long way to do them).
For the 37-year-old to win the whole thing would have been a storybook ending. It couldn’t quite happen. But in the end, she wasn’t the best player on the week. So it was fitting.
 Caroline Wozniacki
Wozniacki won the biggest title of her career in Singapore. And it was a perfect marriage of surface and playing style.
The commentators were gushing with praise about how she was playing her best tennis ever. But if they paid more attention to her on a day-to-day basis, they might revise that. The Dane has been playing excellent tennis all year. If she fell a little short in most of her tournament finals, she nonetheless made eight of them this season. And she improved her ranking from No. 19 at the start of 2017 to No. 3 at the end.
The muddy court was ideal for arguably the best defensive player in the game. But it was her veteran’s ability to adjust her tactics to take best advantage of it that won her the title. Wozniacki took advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves in points, and added a little more when she needed to.
 Jelena Ostapenko
Of all the players in Singapore, Ostapenko’s 2018 season is going to be the most fascinating.
Her win at the French Open, while well-deserved, was aided by the inability of some of her colleagues to seize their moment. With her inexperience, and insouciance, she had no such baggage and was the last one left standing.
But even on the Singapore court, the weakness of her serve cost her. When Williams pounced on her second delivery with impunity later in their round-robin match, the carefree ability to hit winners took a hit. And the surface hurt her in the same way it helped Wozniacki; the winners were harder to come by. And when a player used to hitting those winners isn’t getting them, they try to add even more. And that led to errors.
Only in her final match did Ostapenko exhibit that insouciance again. But there was nothing at stake for her; she was going home regardless. That was telling. Again, as with Svitolina, it was her first trip.
As well, coach Anabel Medina Garrigues wasn’t there, having left to take the Fed Cup captaincy in Spain. A calming influence, Medina Garrigues can take some credit for that French Open victory. The next coach is going to have a tough act to follow.
 Caroline Garcia
The last to qualify for Singapore by virtue of back-to-back wins at big events in Wuhan and Beijing (and an injury to main competitor Johanna Konta), the WTA Tour Finals were a coming-out party.
Of all the Singapore rookies, she was the only one who clearly lived the experience to the fullest – win or lose.
Smiling, talkative, a battler on the court, perhaps the time is now for the French player of whom so much has been expected. She let her game flow for much of the week, and it was a beautiful thing.
Given how much tennis Garcia had played in the late stages to get there, her resistance through all those hours on the court was impressive. The three best matches of the week all had her on one side of the court.
Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.
Instead, it was pure joy.
Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.
The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.
She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.
This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.
Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.
“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”
That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.
In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.
But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.
You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.
That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.
For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.
At times, Halep her own worst enemy
For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.
Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.
“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”
The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.
After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.
“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.
And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.
“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA.
Beefed up serve, lessons learned
Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.
She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.
But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.
We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.
It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.
Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.
Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.
But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.
WTA on-court celebrations
The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.
They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.
There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.
But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.
First true No. 1 celebration of 2017
The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.
But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.
She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.
In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.
On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.
Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.
She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.
On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.
Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.
Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.
NEW YORK – We rarely keep track of the score in practice sets. The hope is that players might actually be working on tactical things, and not concerning themselves about the scoreboard.
(That doesn’t happen in the few days before a Grand Slam, of course. They’re just playing. Or, you know, every often. But hope springs eternal).
But we’ll note here that Canadian Eugenie Bouchard had her way with Karolina Pliskova during a 45-minute hit Saturday at the US Open.
Every little bit of confidence helps, right? Bouchard – even when she was winning a lot of actual tennis matches – rarely came out on the good end of practice sets against other players.
The practice might have been better attended except for the fact that it was nowhere to be found on the posted practice schedule. Still, some fans found it.
And Bouchard was more in demand for autographs then the top-ranked player in the world afterwards. That’s the bizarre world she inhabits, still, even as her ranking dropped two spots to No. 76 on Sunday.
She sits between Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay and Francesca Schiavone, for whom this is likely to be the final US Open.
Here’s what they looked like out on a back court, with the workers taking down all the banners from the just completed Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day activities as they hit.
Already this year, the 25-year-old Romanian has had two opportunities to reach the elusive No. 1 singles ranking on the WTA Tour. But she couldn’t get it done.
If she defeats Garbiñe Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, she’ll finally do it.
“It’s the third time. It is either lucky or is just an experience again. So we will see,” Halep said after defeating wild card Sloane Stephens in the semifinal Saturday.
At the French Open, just a few games away from defeating unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the final and taking over top spot, she faltered. At Wimbledon, she was just two points away against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. But she faltered again.
Surprisingly, Halep and Muguruza have not met in more than two years, since Stuttgart, on indoor clay in 2015.
“I want to win it. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get it, it’s going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends on anyone,” she told the media in Cincinnati. “But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see.”
Fresh slate at the top
If Halep gets it done, it will complete an astonishing – and likely unprecedented – week in which every single one of the No. 1 rankings in tennis will change hands.
Rafael Nadal is assured to be the new No. 1 on the men’s singles side. Finland’s Henri Kontinen will be No. 1 in men’s doubles. And Lucie Safarova will be the new woman atop the women’s doubles ranking on Monday.
It certainly seems as though tennis karma is dictating that Halep join the club.
Nadal (last in 2014) and Kontinen (for many weeks this season) have been No. 1 before. For Safarova (and Halep) it will be the first time.
At the beginning of the week, there were five WTA Tour players with the potential to end up in the top spot, depending on results in Cincinnati.
But a lot of things had to fall into place. Most of the scenarios involved the current No. 1 Pliskova losing early; Halep was the most likely possibility, if Pliskova didn’t hold onto the spot. She basically had to go two rounds further than Pliskova.
The Czech righthander lost in the in the semis to Muguruza. So for Halep, that now means winning the tournament.
But if she doesn’t, she will find herself just five points behind Pliskova, in the No. 2 spot. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, it surely will happen at the US Open, right?
Halep has quarterfinalist points to defend (430) in New York. But Pliskova lost to Kerber in the final (1,300 points). And the other contenders will continue to have a say.
Kerber is dropping
Speaking of Kerber, who spent 14 weeks at No. 1 this year, she will fall all the way to No. 6 after the Cincinnati tournament. With those 2,000 points for winning the US Open hanging over her ranking, she may fall further.
This, it seems, is what parity looks like.
But for some reason, neither Halep nor Pliskova is getting the same kind of criticism that other former No. 1s – Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Amélie Mauresmo, to name three – received for acceding to the top spot without having a Grand Slam title on their resumé.
WIMBLEDON – When the women’s singles draw was made at Wimbledon last Friday, there were five women who theoretically could be ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour at the end of the fortnight.
Karolina Pliskova, wherever she is right now, is the last one standing.
The moment Great Britain’s Johanna Konta defeated Simona Halep in their quarterfinal Tuesday, the 25-year-old Czech became the 23rd woman to hold the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.
She will officially take over the crown – which has proven a rather weighty one in recent years when Serena Williams hasn’t been wearing it – on Monday.
If it seems as if Pliskova backed into it, perhaps she did. The storybook ending would be to win Wimbledon, and become No. 1. Instead, she was upset in the second round by Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.
A post shared by Karolina Pliskova (@karolinapliskova) on
But any time you accomplish something like that, the rest are just details.
Pliskova is the first Czech woman to be ranked No. 1. When Czech-born Martina Navratilova first got to the top of the rankings right around this time in 1978, she was already representing the U.S.
The accolade comes halfway through a season during which the only consistent thing on the WTA Tour was … inconsistency.
Amidst all that, Pliskova has had a very solid season. That’s evidenced by the fact that she’s currently atop the leaderboard in the race to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in October.
Over the last 52 weeks (which are the results on the computer at any one time that determine the current rankings), Pliskova has won four titles. She has made two Grand Slam semi-finals, and has nine victories over other top-10 players.
No. 1 without a major
The fact that she has made it without yet winning a major title has become, if not commonplace, no longer rare. Players like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Amélie Mauresmo (who later erased that blemish on her resumé) have done it before her.
When the draw came out, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki both had a slight shot at being No. 1 at the end of Wimbledon.
But they would have had to win their first major title, for one thing.
Once Pliskova won the warmup tournament in Eastbourne the day after the Wimbledon draw, those two were eliminated from contention.
Kerber had a shot at staying No. 1. But she had to reach the Wimbledon final. She lost a tough one to Garbiñe Muguruza on Manic Monday.
And then, there were two.
Halep’s destiny in her own hands
Halep has Wimbledon quarterfinal ranking points as well as the points she won from winning Bucharest right after Wimbledon a year ago dropping off the computer on Monday. Still, she needed “only” to reach the semi-finals here to finally get to No. 1. And she gave it everything she had, but went down to Konta Tuesday evening.
It’s the second consecutive top-spot disappointment for Halep. At the French Open, she would have become No. 1 had she defeated Jelena Ostapenko and won the title.
That would have been the perfect storybook ending – winning your first major title, and earning the No. 1 spot at the same time.
Halep was two points from beating Konta and finally doing it Tuesday. It wouldn’t have mattered if she got no further in the tournament; she would have left London with the No. 1 ranking.
The Romanian must be questioning a whole lot of things, at the moment.
It seems the weight of trying to grab that crown might be almost as significant as wearing it.
The dethroned Kerber has spent a total of 34 weeks at No. 1, not all of them consecutive. That’s the 12th-most of the 23 No. 1s in history.
It’s more than Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams combined, as amazing as that may seem. And she may well be back before too long to add to it.
ROLAND GARROS – It’s been a long time since a battle for No. 1 on the women’s circuit didn’t involve someone named Serena.
But at long last, in Williams’ absence, there are challengers to the spot that for a couple of years has belonged to the consistent Angelique Kerber.
It’s not that Kerber hasn’t fully deserved to be ranked No. 1. The computer doesn’t lie. But if Williams – inarguably the best female player on the planet – isn’t going to be there, there should at least be a knockdown, drag out battle to replace her.
So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s as though it took the pressure off for Williams to be around, because there was no downside to not being able to overtake her. But as Williams played very little in 2016, and even less in 2017, the opening has been there.
Kerber has been the only one so far to step up and take it.
As of Thursday, though, the battle is on. If Karolina Pliskova defeats Simona Halep to reach her first French Open final, she will be the new No. 1 next Monday.
If Halep beats her, and goes on to win the title, she would become No. 1.
Kerber helped make all this possible by going down in the first round to Ekaterina Makarova in Paris. That, and other recent early exits, dropped her once unassailable points total to being within reach of the rest.
How will that No. 1 pressure affect this semi-final? We’ll soon find out.
The other women’s semifinal Thursday will see No. 30 seed Timea Bascinszky take on unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. That’s the birthday matchup; Bacsinszky turns 28 on the day, while Ostapenko turns 20.
“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, you have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was, like, there is no chance I make final here,” Pliskova said after her quarterfinal win over Caroline Garcia of France Wednesday.
Pliskova was not unaware of the stakes, though. She also was aware that the same prize is also at stake for her opponent.
“Now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say one of the best girls on clay,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to get it for free, you know. She’s playing also for being world No. 1, what I know, I think.”
Current No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany had the ranking points from her title a year ago in Stuttgart fall off the computer Monday. She will earn at least some of them back as the Stuttgart tournament is played this week.
After a first-round bye in the 28-player draw, the 29-year-old will re-take the top spot – if she wins two matches and reaches the semi-finals.
If she doesn’t do it this week, Kerber is perfectly positioned to do it during the rest of the clay-court season. A year ago, she lost to Barbora Strycova in the first round of Madrid, Eugenie Bouchard in the first round in Rome, and Kiki Bertens in the first round at the French Open.
Anything she does will improve on that, and should give her a nice cushion before she has to defend her 2016 Wimbledon final.
Is anyone else even close?
The next player in line is Karolina Pliskova, but she’s nearly 1,000 points behind Kerber. The 25-year-old Czech has room to move during the clay-court season, but she is defending more than 650 points during the grass-court swing.
After that? Dominika Cibulkova (no. 4) and Simona Halep (No. 5) are another 1,000 points behind. Halep posted big results last spring and summer, including victories at both Madrid and Montreal. That’s nearly 2,000 points right there, in two events, that she must defend just to stay where she is. Because of that, the Romanian is an unlikely candidate to make a move.
Cibulkova, who withdrew from Stuttgart with an injury sustained in practice, also has significant results from 2016 to match: a final in Madrid, a win at Eastbourne on grass, a quarter-final at Wimbledon.
One horse race, for now
What we’re saying is that, for the foreseeable future, Kerber will have a lock on the top spot.
With the best female player in the world now officially on the “inactive list”, the best thing that could happen in the women’s game would be a dogged battle for the No. 1 spot she is vacating. That won’t happen.
No doubt the WTA Tour will try its best to promote its next generation of players. Good luck in that quest. In practical terms, the narrative queue is ready and waiting for the returns of two former champions with motivation to burn: Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
There’s no way either will challenge for No. 1. But they will supply the most compelling storylines over the next few months – unless someone really steps up.