WIMBLEDON, England — Centre Court is back to full capacity as England gradually relaxes its pandemic restrictions. The fans merrily quaffing Pimm’s in their expensive seats certainly got two very different matches for their money on Thursday.
The first women’s semifinal, between Ashleigh Barty and Angelique Kerber, was a craft fair, full of slice and guile and often lengthy rallies. The second semifinal, between Aryna Sabalenka and Karolina Pliskova, was heavy metal: thunderous serves, big-bang returns and Sabalenka’s shrieks.
But the goal was the same for all involved, and when silence finally returned to the closest thing tennis has to a temple, the Wimbledon finalists were the current world No. 1, Barty, and a former No. 1, Pliskova.
Barty, who defeated Kerber, 6-3, 7-6 (3), will be aiming for her first Wimbledon title on Saturday. Pliskova, who rallied to defeat Sabalenka, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, will be aiming for her first Grand Slam title.
Though both Barty and Pliskova have excellent serves, the final will be a contrast in styles, as well.
Pliskova, 29, is an angular 6-foot-1 identical twin from the Czech Republic with relatively flat groundstrokes and a blunt streak who has hired and fired numerous coaches in her professional career.
Barty, 25, is a 5-foot-5 Australian with a solid build and diplomatic skills who has worked long term with Craig Tyzzer as her coach and who tends to use words like “we” and “our” when referring to her tennis matches. While Pliskova likes to smack her shots quickly off the bounce, Barty relies on heavy spin. She has a whipping forehand, but her signature shot is a one-handed chip backhand that stays low on any surface but is particularly difficult for her opponents to dig out on grass.
The stroke was decisive in Barty’s and Pliskova’s only previous matchup in a final: Barty prevailed in straight sets at the 2019 Miami Open, on her way to claiming the year-end No. 1 ranking.
“I think she has an extremely difficult game to play,” Pliskova said. “It’s going to be difficult on grass because of her slice and just her game overall.”
Pliskova observed that Barty can make her opponents “play ugly,” but that was certainly not the adjective that summed up her semifinal with Kerber: an eye-catching duel full of net-skimming brilliance, frequent changes of pace and world-class defense.
Barty and Kerber crouched low, knees sometimes scraping the turf, and Kerber, the 2018 Wimbledon champion, took the upper hand in the second set before being broken at love when she served for it at 5-3. Barty rolled on from there, winning the first six points of the tiebreaker as Kerber faltered before recovering to win three straight points. But the surge came too late to keep Barty out of her first Wimbledon singles final.
“I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen, honestly,” Barty said. “I think you have to keep putting yourself in position. I think Wimbledon for me has been an amazing place of learning.”
She won the girls’ title here in 2011 at age 15, making it clear she had the potential to be a star. But though her all-court game seems well suited to grass — the skidding backhand, the probing serve, the crisp volleys — it has taken her 10 more years to make a serious run at the title.
In 2018, she was beaten in the third round by Daria Kasatkina. In 2019, weeks after winning her first major singles title at the French Open, she was upset in the fourth round by Alison Riske. Last year, Wimbledon was canceled because of the pandemic.
“Probably 2018, 2019, was some of my toughest weeks playing,” Barty said. “I learned a hell of a lot from those two times. I think a lot of the time your greatest growth comes from your darkest times. I think that’s why this tournament has been so important to me.”
She has raced the clock effectively after she retired in the second round of the French Open last month because of a hip injury.
“To be honest, it was going to be touch-and-go,” she said. “Everything had to be spot on to give myself a chance to play pain free and to play knowing that I could trust my body.”
Barty has sometimes seemed more gifted than gritty during her career, prone to big-match nerves, but she demonstrated ample resilience against the resurgent Kerber. Barty smiled before she took the balls to serve the first game, and though she double-faulted on the opening point, she jumped out to an early lead and maintained a high standard.
“I think probably the biggest thing on these courts is you need to have adaptability,” she said. “The courts change dramatically from the start of the event to the end of the event. Learning how to play and adjust the way you’re playing as the grass changes is an important part. It gets quicker. It gets harder. It’s also about keeping it simple, just going out there and enjoying the opportunity.”
Barty stopped enjoying the tour at one stage, taking an extended break beginning in 2014 as she struggled to cope with the pressures of the constant travel and expectations. She also spent most of 2020 at home in Australia because of the pandemic, skipping the U.S. Open and French Open. But she has embraced returning to competition even though it has meant months away from home because of the quarantine restrictions in Australia.
Now only Pliskova stands in her way of becoming Australia’s first Wimbledon women’s singles champion since her mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley won in 1980.
Pliskova, seeded eighth, is standing tall. She needed to play and serve boldly to withstand the second-seeded Sabalenka’s onslaught on Thursday. Sabalenka is perhaps the biggest hitter in the women’s game, with a relentless style similar to that of Serena Williams and with first and second serves that are faster on average than those of some of the leading men.
But Pliskova was able to break serve early in both the second and third sets and then hold the lead despite Sabalenka’s hustle and muscle. Pliskova’s serve is not as fast or as stadium-rattling as Sabalenka’s, but it was the more effective weapon. She won a greater percentage of first-serve and second-serve points than her Belarusian opponent. Together, they combined for the most aces ever recorded in a women’s match at Wimbledon — 32 (18 for Sabalenka, 14 for Pliskova).
Pliskova remains the most successful active women’s player not to have won a Grand Slam singles title. The closest she came was at the 2016 U.S. Open, when she upset Williams before losing to Kerber, then ranked No. 1, in the final.
“My second final, second time I’m playing against a player who is number one,” Pliskova said of her Saturday matchup with Barty.
Sascha Bajin, Pliskova’s new coach this season, has quite a résumé. He long worked as Williams’s hitting partner, and he coached Naomi Osaka when she won her first two Grand Slam singles titles. But he has not had the same results with his recent employers, and Pliskova struggled this year until Wimbledon, falling to 13 in the rankings. On Monday, she will re-enter the top 10, possibly as a major champion.
“When we started our partnership together, we weren’t as successful as she maybe wanted it or expected it,” Bajin told me on Thursday. “You only get measured by the success you have. It doesn’t matter what a nice guy I am, whether I’m funny or not, she’s not going to keep me around if we don’t deliver results. I couldn’t be happier right now, but we’ve got one more to go.”