BY RICHARD OSBORN
When she stepped into the white-hot spotlight of Arthur Ashe Stadium to face Angelique Kerber in the 2016 US Open final, in many ways, Karolina Pliskova was just making her introduction to the tennis world at large, a tattooed and long-legged debutante who could serve even the heaviest of hitters off the court. When she departed, having come up short in a valiant 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 effort, she’d clearly earned the respect of her peers and the global audience that had tuned in to watch the thrilling three-setter.
Not that she was an unknown inside the beltway. Prior to her run in Flushing Meadows, the Czech baseliner — the 2016 aces leader with 530, more than 200 ahead of her nearest competition, Serena Williams — had already bagged titles in Nottingham and Cincinnati, where she defeated none other than Kerber for the trophy. But reaching her first major final clearly bolstered her confidence, her inner-belief.
Watch: Karolina Pliskova Interview
"Definitely. That was the main breakthrough," said Pliskova, who already own titles this year in Brisbane and Doha, her sixth and seventh overall. "The New York thing helped me a lot. I feel much better now and I'm beating players that I didn't beat before."
Now the world No. 3, Pliskova has to be considered a legitimate threat for the WTA's top ranking, now held by familiar foe Ms. Kerber. But, for now at least, the 24-year-old insists she’s not focusing on that.
"I’m not trying to get to No. 1 now. I just want to play tournament by tournament," said Plsikova, whose sister, Kristyna, is also in the top half of the women’s draw. "There’s always a chance if you have good results. Even before last year, the main goal was to win Grand Slams and tournaments like this one. If you win them, you can get to No. 1."
Should she get there down the road, don’t expect her to assume the role of media darling/pin-up girl. When it comes to the spotlight — TV appearances, photo shoots, endorsement appearances — the 6-foot-1 power player would rather let her racquet do the talking.
"I usually say 'no' to everything," she laughed. "I just don’t need this stuff if it’s not a good thing for me. I do a few press conferences after wins, but I wasn’t raised this way. I just want to play good tennis. That's the main goal. I don't need to be in every magazine."
Pliskova, who was shuffled to the top of the draw upon Serena Williams’ withdrawal due to knee trouble, will kick of her 2017 BNP Paribas Open campaign on Friday against Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig. She has never lost to the Puerto Rican in three previous encounters, the most recent coming last year in the Nottingham semifinals.
• En route to the 2016 US Open final, the Czech became just the eighth player to defeat both Venus and Serena Williams at one tournament, and just the fourth to do it at a Slam.
• She is coached by David Kotyza.
• Karolina is at an even .500 (4-4) in career head-to-heads against her sister.