I'm a psychotherapist who goes out of my way to keep from saying "It's a process" to my clients. Because who wants to hear that? But really, it is. It's a process in tennis, too, which fans sometimes forget. But these past two weeks, we've seen two revelations of that truth.
There was never much doubt about Karolina Pliskova's innate talent. Tall, with a deadly serve and a calm demeanor, Pliskova appeared destined, from the start, to make a name for herself on the WTA tour. But at just the moments when the most was expected of her--during the majors--the Czech player disappointed. Getting no farther than the third round in any major while simultaneously winning some tournaments and performing consistently on the tour put Pliskova in an awkward position.
She just wasn't ready. Then, last year in Cincinnati, something clicked. Pliskova beat world number 2 Angie Kerber in the final, earning her first premier title, and also denying Kerber the number 1 ranking. Kerber corrected that slip by defeating Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. But, even with this loss, the Czech had finally "arrived." To reach the final, Pliskova defeated both Williams sisters, which put quite a flourish on her run.
Pliskova opened her 2017 season with a big message by winning the Brisbane title. She lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (a victim of the on-fire Mirjana Lucic-Baroni), in which many observes had her listed as the favorite. Pliskova put on another splendid Fed Cup show, then went on to win Doha, in which she defeated Dominika Cibulkova for the first time in her career. Currently ranked number 3 in the world, the long, tall Czech (whose only New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more") is headed toward greater stardom. It just took her a while.
Meanwhile, Elina Svitolina, whom many (and I have never been among them) refused to think of as a potential WTA star, has skillfully worked her way to a number 10 ranking. Svitolina, who is now on a 12-match win streak, won the Dubai event this weekend, beating Angie Kerber (for the third time), then defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. The Ukrainian player also won the Taipei Open earlier this year.
The Dubai match point was memorable:
What a backhand winner from @ElinaSvitolina to win biggest career title! 😱 #DDFTennis pic.twitter.com/TqMokQPRbZ— WTA (@WTA) February 25, 2017
Svitolina, who can be considered a defensive player, has always shown some expert court movement and anticipation, but in the past year, she has sharpened her groundstrokes. Perhaps most important, she has changed something in her head, and that change has to be related to the period she spent with Justine Henin, who joined her team for a while as a coaching consultant. When this consultation was first announced, I remember thinking "clever move, Elina." Because who knows more about how to win than Henin, who spent the early part of her career choking away matches, and then spent the rest of her career delivering misery to her opponents.
Henin understood that power could be flummoxed by movement and stroke precision (Simona Halep understands this, too, but appears to lack belief in herself). All one has to do is observe Svitolina's body language to understand that some psychological switch has been turned on. The Ukrainian star is also a good doubles player (her ad hoc winning run with Daria Gavrilova was hilarious), and that never hurts.
Both Svitolina and Pliskova will be fun to watch this season, and we can look to both of them to improve their games. It's a process.