/Ashleigh Barty vs Karolina Pliskova, Wimbledon 2021 womens final: live score and latest updates – The Telegraph

Ashleigh Barty vs Karolina Pliskova, Wimbledon 2021 womens final: live score and latest updates – The Telegraph

In tennis, there is one exclusive club few want to join: that of former world No 1 players who have never won a grand slam title.

Across women’s and men’s tennis alumni, there are just three players from the Open Era who fit the description: Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Marcelo Rios. Across active players, just one: Karolina Pliskova. On Saturday she has a chance to finally cancel her membership, as she attempts to beat world No 1 Ashleigh Barty to the Wimbledon title and finally back up her previous top ranking.

She came this close five years ago, at the 2016 US Open final. She ultimately lost, but the following season reached her No 1 ranking and was touted as a definite future champion.

“Five years back we were thinking that she is the next to win a major,” three-time major champion Tracy Austin says. “Then we were thinking her time had passed. [There is] a big difference to winning a major and not winning one when you retire. It can start to get into your head, and I think everybody would want to remove that label.”

Pliskova, 29, has long been the best player never to reach the pinnacle of the sport. She replaced Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, who held the burden for much of her career, before winning the Australian Open in 2018. It is something that can weigh a player down, and can mean they are routinely under-appreciated.

Earlier this week, Pliskova complained that she had not been scheduled on a show court until the quarter-final stage. But it is not hugely surprising as she has dropped down the pecking order in recent years. Since reaching the semi-finals at the 2019 Australian Open, the Czech has failed to get past the fourth round at the past eight majors.

Even her start to 2021 has been poor, dropping out of the top 10 for the first time since 2016. Her new coach, Sascha Bajin, who previously helped Naomi Osaka to her first two majors and was Serena Williams’s hitting partner, says the mental hurdle of reaching for that first major title is something he and Pliskova have discussed.

“It’s something she wanted so much – the problem becomes if you want something so much, it’s just as bad as not wanting it enough,” he said yesterday. “It kind of paralyses you and it looks like you don’t care, when it’s the complete opposite.”

To alleviate the pressure, at the Australian Open in January he told her to take each match one at a time – treat it the same as any other tournament. But Pliskova went out in the third round and then the second round at the French in May. So he did about-turn for Wimbledon.

“This time I was telling her, ‘Listen, you’re going to win this, you’re going to be here for two weeks’. I wanted to put that in her mind every day,” he said, adding with a smile: “At least it worked.” That it did. Pliskova has dropped only one set in her run at SW19, is leading the field in aces and has dropped serve only four times. The pressure of expectation does not seem to be hampering her in any way, looking more relaxed than she has in years.

Usually one to keep her emotions at bay on the court, against second seed Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final she showed frustration after dropping the first set and then even laughed at her poor ball toss on match point. It was as refreshing a sight as her top-level tennis was. Martina Navratilova, who has won 18 major titles, believes Bajin’s influence has been key.

“That is where Sascha has had a great influence on her, just relaxing her,” she said. “The way she carries herself on court is a different person now. It’s the best tennis she has probably ever played – better than when she beat Serena Williams five years ago in the semi-finals of the US Open.”

She will have to beat world No 1 Barty to become the fifth-oldest first-time major winner in the Open Era today. Only then will she have etched her name into the history books for tennis’s most-coveted prize – and erase the sport’s most undesirable statistic from her record.

By Molly McElwee

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