NEW YORK – Call it déjà vu, Groundhog Day or simply a case of “Here we go again.” For the second straight year, top-ranked Serena Williams was stunned in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, this time to No. 10-seed Karolina Pliskova. In 2015, Williams was looking to complete the calendar Grand Slam for the first time since Steffi Graf in 1988, before Italy’s Roberta Vinci stopped her in straight sets. This year, Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam wins in the Open Era was on the line, before Williams double-faulted on match point in the second set tiebreaker and lost to Pliskova 6-2, 7-6(5).
“I don’t believe it,” Pliskova said in an on-court interview with ESPN’s Pam Shriver after the match. “Actually, I do believe it. I always knew I had a chance to beat anybody when I am playing my game.”
The win puts the 24-year-old Czech into her first Grand Slam final—she had previously never made it past the third round of a major, despite being inside the top 20 for nearly two years—and makes her the first Czech woman to reach the U.S. Open final since Helena Sukova in 1993. The loss for Williams means she will relinquish her No. 1 ranking to Germany’s Angelique Kerber, after holding the spot for 186 consecutive weeks. Pliskova, who is on a 12-match win streak in which she has beat six Top 10 players, will now meet Kerber in Saturday’s final after Kerber’s straight-sets win over Caroline Wozniacki in the night’s other semifinal.
Plagued by errors, an apparent left knee injury and Pliskova’s powerful serve, Williams looked listless and slow-footed from the start, getting broken in the third and seventh games of the first set, which lasted just 26 minutes.
“I don’t think much really went well today,” she said after the match. “I didn’t play as well as I have been playing and it showed.”
In the second set, Pliskova once again got an early break but lost it when she was broken for the first time in the match in game six, at the 51-minute mark. She and Williams would trade holds for the next six games, Pliskova serving to stay in the set at 4-5 and 5-6. In the tiebreak she went up 3-0, before hitting two consecutive unforced errors to allow Williams to rally and earn a mini-break on a double fault to go up 5-4. A still shaky Williams then hit a backhand long at 5-5 to give Pliskova match point, before finally double faulting to end her stay on Arthur Ashe.
“Karolina played great today,” said Williams. “I thought she served well and that was definitely a big thing for her.”
After the loss, many questioned whether fatigue and scheduling was the key factor that contributed to Williams’s lackluster play. She struggled mightily in her three-set win over No. 5-seed Simona Halep the night before, however, she refused to use that as an excuse for her result against Pliskova.
“I wasn’t tired from yesterday’s match,” Williams said. “I’m a professional player, been playing for over 20 years. If I can’t turn around after 24 hours and play again then I shouldn’t be on tour. I had plenty of time to recover so it was fine.”
If fatigue wasn’t what was plaguing Williams, it appeared her hobbled knee was definitely a contributor. She was seen grimacing and tugging at her leg throughout the second set.
“Last night [the knee injury] happened at the end of the [Halep] match,” said Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “It was quite clear. I don’t remember her moving so slow ever.”
In her post match press conference, Williams also conceded that worries about her knee, at times, threw her game off. “Yeah, I’ve been having some serious knee problems,” Williams said. “When you’re hampered you’re thinking of other things. Like I was making errors that I never make, that I definitely didn’t make in this tournament in particular. So many simple shots that I easily could have made. My mind was just a little bit everywhere.”
While Williams’s mind was all over the court, Pliskova’s seemed to be on taking down the World No. 1 with her serve. She won 84% of her first serve points, compared to 66% for Williams, and had seven aces.
“I always want to serve aces,” said Pliskova. “I just wanted to serve as many first serves as I can. Even if it’s not an ace it can still be a point for me. I wanted to [take a] risk, go more into her body. With a big serve I did more double faults obviously, but I still think it paid off.”
It did. Pliskova was effective throughout the entire tournament, beating Venus in three sets in the fourth round, marking only the fourth player to beat both Williams sisters in the same Grand Slam (the other were Martina Hingis 2001, Justine Henin 2007, Kim Clijsters 2009).
“Probably right now America hates me because I beat both [Williams] sisters,” a smiling Pliskova said after the match.
On the contrary, Americans always love a winner.