Karolina Pliskova edges past Aryna Sabalenka to reach Wimbledon final

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<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Karolina Pliskova admits that as she approached Wimbledon, a tournament where in eight attempts she had never been past the fourth round, “the dream was to make the second week”. On Saturday she will play Ashleigh Barty for the title, after confounding expectations – her own, it seems, as well as many others’ – with a deserved 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory over the No 2 seed, Aryna Sabalenka, in the semi-finals.

A match that was billed as a battle of big-hitters duly started with an ace and ended, seven minutes short of two hours later, with another. No women’s match at Wimbledon, at least since people started counting these things, has featured more aces than this one’s 32. But while it was as predicted a staccato story of short points – 145 were decided in four shots or fewer, just 38 in five or more – there was much more to it than raw power.

Related: Ashleigh Barty outplays Angelique Kerber to reach first Wimbledon final

At its heart was a fascinating contrast in styles between the tall, languid Pliskova and her Belarusian opponent – only an inch shorter but broader and more forceful in style and character. Sabalenka roars into her shots, not just with her voice but her entire body, while Pliskova glides across the baseline and generates power, particularly on the forehand side, through timing and technique rather than force. It was a match of silk and sandpaper.

Sabalenka started it with a genuinely fearsome service game. If her serve, like most aspects of her game, can be wildly unreliable, in the first set it was always there when she needed it. At 5-5 she came back from 0-40 and then advantage down with three aces and three remarkable second serves that each clocked between 104mph and 106mph.

Those four break points took Pliskova’s tally up to eight, none of them taken, and she was yet to allow her opponent any at all. But her failure to capitalise on those chances seemed to sit heavy on her; the next game featured two bad mistakes, one an easy forehand volley sent long to gasps from the crowd, and soon Sabalenka had her first break point of the day.

Aryna Sabalenka reacts after missing an opportunity against Karolina Pliskova.
Aryna Sabalenka reacts after missing an opportunity against Karolina Pliskova. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Pliskova had come into this match with the tournament’s finest record in these crucial moments – she had saved 18 out of 21 on her way to the semi-finals, a remarkable 86% success rate. This time she double faulted, giving her opponent not just the game but the set. “I was super pissed about that because I’d had so many chances,” she said. “I was frustrated because I didn’t capitalise on my chances on her serve and I had so many break points.”

She needed only two more, both converted, to win the match, while Sabalenka never had another. Barty has won five of their seven previous meetings but only once in straight sets, and on this form there might be more surprises to come from Pliskova in the final. “Every time we’ve played it was close. I never played a horrible match against her,” Pliskova said. “I had a lot of chances last match I think. I’m not expecting anything easy, but definitely there’s going to be chances.”

Here Sabalenka gave her a few too many gifts. She gradually slipped into a funk that started at her feet; after a while it seemed to stop taking her to quite the right spots from which to make her shots and spread from there. There was a moment in the second set when she sent a backhand into the net and stamped her feet like an outraged toddler. Sometimes it was as if the entire match was raging inside her, and Pliskova’s task was to wait at the other end to see how it all played out.

But the Czech also produced some spectacular winners, punishing in particular any second serve that had the temerity to test her forehand. In the second and third sets Sabalenka won just 45% of points on her second serve and Pliskova, whose own serve combines power and grace, 71% of hers. The die was probably cast at 4-3 in the second, when Pliskova hit five faults but still won the game.

“I think I have the game to win a slam but it’s more about the mental side,” said Sabalenka. “I think maybe if I was in another semi-final I would do better, I’d be more aggressive and trust my game and just go for it, because honestly there’s nothing to lose.”

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