Karolina Pliskova and Lucas Pouille had contrasting wins on Wednesday but both progressed into their first Australian Open semi-finals.
Seventh seeded Pliskova staged what might just be the comeback of the year to beat Serena Williams after being double break down and four match points down. Pouille had a relatively easier win over Milos Raonic, but managed to emerge as the last man standing in a section that had Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric, Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios.
While these two results may seem unconnected, the fact that these two players are in the final four of the year’s first Grand Slam tells you in tennis, as in life, the value of intangible concepts like a fresh start and positive approach can go a long way.
No sporting event is without incredible stories of dogged resilience. And in Pliskova and Pouille’s quarter-final wins, there was once again a case made for the age-old adages: never give up; fall down but rise again; try and try till you succeed.
There aren’t many similarities in their respective quarter-final victories per se, or indeed in their career graphs as players.
Pliskova is a former world No 1 who has consistently maintained her top 10 spot. She has often been seen as some who struggles in the big matches. But she has also put together an unbeaten run this year so far, with the season-opening title in Brisbane.
Pouille, on the other hand, broke into the top 10 of the ATP Rankings in early 2018 but ended the year outside the top 30 as he struggled with motivation. He was win-less at the start of Australian Open, losing in the first round at Sydney after losing all his matches at Hopman Cup.
But there are definitely some uncanny resemblances in their journey to the final four in Melbourne.
For starters, both players had their best previous major runs at US Open 2016 and not since had they managed to live up to that.
The 26-year-old Czech beat heavy favourite Serena and reached her first, and till now only, Grand Slam final. She made four quarter-finals and a lone semi-final after that, but not another final.
The 24-year-old Frenchman beat Rafael Nadal, coming from a break down in the fifth but lost in the next round to Gael Monfils and didn’t make another Grand Slam quarter-final before this Australian Open.
But perhaps what is the most peculiar similarity is that both of them have rediscovered a spark of sorts this season, after a change of guard in the coaching camp.
Interestingly, the coaches of both are former WTA stars in a time when women coaches in tennis are increasingly accepted. Pliskova joined forced with Rennae Stubbs and Conchita Martinez after an early exit at Wimbledon while Pouille hired two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo at the end of last season.
Impact of female coaches
Both Pliskova and Pouille have shown the impact their new female coaches have had in these last few days. The most striking is how they have become more mentally sound players, apart from ironing out the physical chinks. Tennis can so often be akin to a game of chess, the importance of mental stability is unmatched.
For Pliskova, this mindset change has seen her go undefeated in 10 straight matches, of which six went to a deciding set including the Brisbane final.
This new mental resolve was never more evident than when she saved four match points against Serena. She had lost to the American in the US Open quarter-finals just a few months back, after leading 4-1 in the first set. On Wednesday, she said she believed she could win this match and this is what helped her.
But coming from 1-5 down to reel off six games in a row against an, admittedly injured, Serena would require a lot more than the stinging serve she possesses. Serena credited her opponent’s ‘lights-out tennis’ in her gracious press conference.
The key, of course, was belief and inspiration from a certain Spaniard.
“She’s becoming more aggressive, and we’re also working on her being more positive on court, which is really key to winning more matches,” coach Martinez had said in a press conference, a few days back. “Rafa Nadal could be the perfect role model. She was talking earlier this week about how it was amazing to see Rafa up, like, 6-0, 6-1, 3-0, still playing the same way he did on the first point. He’s still working the point, not making silly mistakes; he keeps going the same way.”
Pliskova seemed to incorporate the lessons from the two Spaniards to the soul as she fought till the last point, and made it to the semi-final.
Pouille on the other hand, said he had simply lost the joy in playing the sport. Still young at 24 years of age, it was a cycle of demotivation and losses for him as he went 25-21 in 2018. Then, his French coach came on board and he found his passion again.
“Last year I lost a bit of joy being on the court. I didn’t really enjoy my time… you lose one match, two matches, then it’s tough for you to come back,” he said. “I started a new adventure with my team, with Amelie. I enjoy being on the court again and that is the most important.”
Enjoying what you do, staying positive, having the right guidance. The lesson behind the comebacks of these two young players is indeed a lesson for life.