Serena Williams still can’t shake Steffi Graf.
For the second-straight year, the world No. 1 was upset in the U.S. Open semifinal, this time courtesy a dispiriting 6-2, 7-6 (5) loss to Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. The defeat keeps her tied with Graf for most major titles in the Open era (22) and will lead to Serena being dethroned from her No. 1 ranking, with Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber set to pass her on Monday. Serena had been in the top spot for the last 186 weeks, a run which tied Graf for the longest streak in history. (Pliskova had saved Serena’s No. 1 ranking last month in Cincinnati when she beat Kerber in the final. Thursday she took it away.)
Last year, Graf also loomed large in Serena’s shock semifinal loss in Queens, as the American was two wins away from the first Grand Slam since Graf accomplished the feat in 1988 and from getting major No. 22 to tie Graf for most Slams (which she eventually did at Wimbledon earlier this summer).
The losses, while similar in meaning and surprise, couldn’t have been more different on the court. In 2016, with a simple draw ahead of her and the weight of immortality turning her into Sisyphus with a tennis racquet, Serena was done in by the pressure. Vinci, who played a fine match, was the beneficiary of Serena beating Serena.
This time around, Pliskova earned the win, using her dominant serve (she has the most aces in the WTA this season) to keep Serena on her heels. The world No. 1 seemed off balance the entire match, not quite sure how to deal with the speed coming off the Czech’s racquet. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, blamed a knee and hamstring injury for Serena’s play, something that wasn’t helped by a three-set quarterfinal win over Simona Halep on Wednesday. The scheduling was Serena’s own fault – she requested starting the tournament on the second day, which led to the QF-SF back-to-back.
Injury or not, nothing should take away from Pliskova’s win. It was an impressive showing from a player who won three games at last year’s Open and had never been past the third round in 17 majors. Given multiple opportunities to blink and succumb to her own pressure, Pliskova stood up, holding on after failing to consolidate a second-set break and recovering from blowing an early lead in the tiebreak. When Serena double-faulted on match point, it felt like a gift to a player who didn’t need one.