Top 10 Grand Slam Matches of 2017: #10 - Karolina Pliskova narrowly avoids the upset against Zhang Shuai

Starting this week, VAVEL USA’s Don Han will be counting down the top 10 best WTA Grand Slam matches of 2017. Number 10: Karolina Pliskova’s incredible escape during her US Open third-round match against Zhang Shuai, saving a match point along the way.

Top 10 Grand Slam Matches of 2017: #10 - Karolina Pliskova narrowly avoids the upset against Zhang Shuai
Karolina Pliskova did not falter during the nerviest moments, eventually triumphing in this thrilling match | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Karolina Pliskova
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Zhang Shuai

One of the best Grand Slam matches of 2017 is definitely no other than Karolina Pliskova’s tough three-set win over the dangerous Zhang Shuai in the third round of the US Open. Pliskova was the world number one and owned a 4-0 head-to-head record against the Chinese coming into this encounter. However, the Czech had to dig deep to claim a three-set win over the 27th seed, saving a match point along the way before coming from a break down to triumph after two-hours and 22-minutes of play.

Zhang recovers from early deficit to take the first set

With this being her first match in the world’s biggest tennis stadium, Zhang certainly felt the nerves while competing in Arthur Ashe Stadium as four consecutive unforced errors saw Pliskova take the break in the opening game. However, it was the same case for the world number one as she failed to find her first serves and Zhang easily exploited her second serves, coming up with some powerful returns which allowed her to grab the immediate break back. The Chinese started to get into the zone as she played some confident tennis to seal the first hold of the match.

Pliskova continued to struggle on her serve as she was putting in a lackluster performance, with her groundstrokes looking less dictative than it looked before. She was broken for the second consecutive time while Zhang had to fend off a couple of break points with her fantastic net approaches working well. The break points galore soon ended with the Chinese keeping up her high level of play, clinching the first set 6-3 after just 34 minutes.

Zhang Shuai celebrates winning the first set 6-3, displaying some high-quality tennis | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Zhang Shuai celebrates winning the first set 6-3, displaying some high-quality tennis | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America

Pliskova saves match point and fights back

Determined to produce a comeback, Pliskova knew that nothing but a place in the final would keep her as the world number one. She stepped up her play and started to play her normal aggressive tennis as Zhang started to get frustrated with herself due to her countless unforced errors, soon finding herself down 0-3 in the second set as she wasted four break points in the third game, missing the golden opportunity to return level.

However, the momentum shifted hands after a changeover, with Zhang finding the rhythm of her solid baseline game and came out of nowhere to level the scores with an incredible backhand down-the-line winner. A series of holds was followed by a crucial service break in the ninth game, with more errors coming off Pliskova’s racquet as the Chinese earned the chance to serve out the huge upset.

Karolina Pliskova in action during her third-round match against Zhang Shuai at the US Open, prevailing in three sets | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Karolina Pliskova in action during her third-round match against Zhang Shuai at the US Open, prevailing in three sets | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America

Pliskova realized that she had nothing to lose while being on the brink of defeat, coming up with the best forehand down-the-line shot on match point, eventually breaking straight back to remain in contention. The Czech then served two aces on break points, saving a total of three in the eleventh game to grab the match-changing service hold. Ultimately, the comeback was completed as Zhang crumbled when facing the pressure of serving to stay in the set.

World number one seals the hard-fought win

After receiving treatment for her right arm, Pliskova started the final set on the worst possible note as she was too overly-passive, allowing Zhang to take the initiative in most of the rallies. As a result, the Chinese took the break in the opening game of the decider and she once again looked on course for the win. Nerves did not seem to be a thing for Zhang as she saved a break point to consolidate the break, extending her lead to two games.

Zhang Shuai took the early lead in the final set, but failed to capitalize on her chances | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Zhang Shuai took the early lead in the final set, but failed to capitalize on her chances | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America

The changeover proved to be extremely beneficial for Pliskova, who managed to regain her composure and went back to the drawing board as she came out firing, rattling off three consecutive games to turn the tables. A breakthrough seemed unlikely as both players started to dominate their service games, but Zhang soon faced the pressure of serving to stay in the match at 4-5 down.

The nerves were clearly reflected when the Chinese sent a drive volley straight into the net at 30-30, gifting Pliskova a match point. Coming up with some merciless forehands, the Czech finally sealed the win and clinched the confidence-boosting win after more than two hours of play.

Karolina Pliskova celebrates the impressive 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over Zhang Shuai | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Karolina Pliskova celebrates the impressive 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over Zhang Shuai | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America

Stats Corner: Pliskova narrowly sneaks past the Chinese

Both Pliskova and Zhang were mediocre on their serves throughout the encounter, with the hard-hitting Czech surprisingly only claiming 57 percent of her first serve points as compared to 58 for Zhang. Nonetheless, Pliskova still managed to serve nine aces and just one double-fault. They had similar figures on their second deliveries, but it was an encounter full of impressive net play as both players excelled while charging forward to the net.

Arguably, the crucial factor in deciding the outcome was the break point conversion rate. Pliskova earned 12 chances to break and capitalizing on half of them while Zhang shockingly just converted five from 17, including seven missed opportunities in the second set where she could have jumped out to a big lead. Pliskova and Zhang ended the match with a negative winner to error ratio as both players combined for a bulk of 86 unforced errors.

Karolina Pliskova celebrates winning a point during her third-round win over Zhang Shuai | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Karolina Pliskova celebrates winning a point during her third-round win over Zhang Shuai | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America

Reaction from the victor

Pliskova was not playing her best tennis, but she still managed to grab the tight win against the inspired Zhang in three sets. “I just, you know, I just try to fight even if my game is not 100%, and it's not 100%, actually, this week,” the Czech claimed in the post-match press conference.

The world number one was also full of praise for her opponent, mentioning that, “I felt like she was really playing tactically well, so I was still the one who was running. She was using the forehand, the crosscourt, the angle. She hit pretty good.” Pliskova proceeded to defeat Jennifer Brady in just 46 minutes, playing the best tennis she had displayed all week, but her hopes of defending her points were diminished after Coco Vandeweghe ousted her in the quarterfinals.

Aftermath: Pliskova falls from the top spot

After failing to defend her finalist points from 2016, Pliskova fell to the fourth-spot as a result. The Czech went on to reach the semifinals just once throughout the remainder of the year, but it came at the prestigious WTA Finals held in Singapore, where she went 2-1 in the Round Robin stage. Whereas, Zhang won her maiden WTA title of the year in Guangzhou after the US Open, and also triumphed at the 125k event in Honolulu in her last tournament of the year. The hard-hitting Chinese met Pliskova in the second round of the Wuhan Open once again, falling in another tight three-setter.

Zhang Shuai would rue her missed opportunities during the encounter, having missed a match point | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America
Zhang Shuai would rue her missed opportunities during the encounter, having missed a match point | Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images North America