It was a day of contrasting meltdowns at the Australian Open for two former US Open runners-up on Saturday. Karolina Pliskova was dramatically dumped out early of yet another Grand Slam while Daniil Medvedev theatrically won a fifth set for the first time.

The sixth seeded Pliskova was out of sorts throughout and fell 7-5, 7-5 in one hour and 54 minutes to compatriot Karolina Muchova. Fourth seed Medvedev overcame buttock pain and a walk-out by his coach mid-match as he withstood a test from Filip Krajinovic 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0.

If the scoreline seems odd, the matches were odder.

Pliskova was docked a point for smashing her racquet off the court after dropping the first set, fought back to take a 0-5 lead and inexplicably dropped the next seven games in a straight-set capitulation.

Medvedev was on course for a straight-sets win but dropped his level and next two sets, shouted at his box which made his coach Gilles Cervara walk out, needed treatment on his buttock but prevailed to capture a bagel in the final set – the first time he has won a fifth set in his career.

Pliskova and lost hope

A consistent Top 10 player, Pliskova is a former world No 1 as well as a former big hope to be a Grand Slam champion. There was a time not too long ago where the 28-year-old would figure in the list of favourites ahead of a Major but these predictions have long since become a bit of an in-joke and the results show it.

Karolina Pliskova at Grand Slams

Tournament 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Australian Open A Q1 Q1 1R 2R 3R 3R QF QF SF 3R 3R
French Open A Q2 1R 1R 2R 2R 1R SF 3R 3R 2R
Wimbledon Q1 A 1R 2R 2R 2R 2R 2R 4R 4R NH
US Open Q1 Q1 Q2 1R 3R 1R F QF QF 4R 2R

By 2021, no one really seems to think she will be a Major winner... perhaps not even Pliskova herself. And it’s not for lack of trying. Her game is loaded with big weapons and she has several other WTA trophies, across surfaces, to back that. She has worked with a virtual laundry list of high-profile coaches recently – Rennae Stubbs, Conchita Martinez, Daniel Vallverdu, and currently Sasha Bajin.

But the barrier seems mental, as was so evident in her straight-set loss to quarantine practice partner Muchova. After losing a close first set, she took her frustration out on her racquet and incurred a code violation. She then walked into the players’ tunnel to inflict further damage, but it was seen by an official who informed chair umpire Alison Hughes resulting in a docked point for a second code violation.

The incident seemed to galvanise Pliskova, who won five consecutive games and looked set to force a decider. But what mental demon returned is unknown as she just fell apart. Two years back, she had reached the semi-finals in Melbourne, fighting back to beating Serena Williams who rolled her ankle on match point. That was the last time she went past the fourth round at a Major, even when she was the top seed at the last US Open. When will be her next, is anyone’s guess.

Medvedev survives meltdown

On the other side was the fight amid the meltdown shown by Medvedev. The Russian is a poster boy not just for the next generation of men’s tennis, but also for the importance of learning to control emotions on the big stage. In the last few years, he has grown from the brash youth responding to the crowd’s negative emotions to a mature top-ranked player with trophies won under pressure.

In the third round, his stunning 17-match unbeaten streak stretching back to last year’s Paris Masters was under severe threat when he was pushed to the decider. The fourth seed blew a two-set lead and needed treatment to his left glute, becomingly increasingly ill-tempered.

In an empty Rod Laver Arena due to the snap-lockdown, he repeatedly yelled and gesticulated at his box and by the fourth set, his coach Gilles Cervara walked out and did not return. Weirdly, Cervara’s exit seemed to do the trick as the 25-year-old took the fifth set without losing a game in just 25 minutes to seal the win.

“He wants me to win so he felt like that (leaving) was the best thing to do,” the Russian later said, brushing away the incident. “I don’t know what was going through his head, but at least what he said is that he was sure I’m going to win, and he just wanted to leave me alone to be calm. Myself, as a human, that’s why we can have, let’s call it, some frustrating moments, both of us, because we both want to win.”

That moment could have been the start of a spiral down, but somehow he worked his way through the physical and mental struggle to break his opponent’s momentum. Crucially, he also gained the experience of winning a fifth set – a hurdle that stopped him from lifting his first Grand Slam in the 2019 US Open final against Rafael Nadal. Both very significant moments for a youngster who is primed to make the Major breakthrough.

Medvedev is bidding to become only the third Russian man to win a major after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin and his recent results only add weight to this. His unbeaten run has included Bercy, ATP Finals and the ATP Cup beating the likes of Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev in three-setters. And if this record on hard courts wasn’t enough for his confidence, a tenacious comeback like this should boost it further.

It is the battle against emotions on the court that separates the champions from rest in an individual sport like tennis, as Pliskova and Medvedev’s response showed.