Wimbledon 2021: Sweet Karolina wins the battle of the big boomers

It was the battle of the big, booming serves and the tussle of the tattoos. Both Karolina Pliskova and Aryna Sabalenka have remarkably similar stories of defying their mothers with their body art. But it’s the Czech girl who, if she so desires, can order up new inkwork: “I’m in the Wimbledon final.”

What a pulverising affair this was. Heavyweight, heavy metal, howitzers for rackets. Short rallies, siege-gun stuff, every shot seeming like it might dislodge an arm from the socket, every ball in serious danger of bursting.

Sabalenka, from Belarus, also came armed with The Grunt, a weapon in itself. Maybe it was Jimmy Connors who introduced grunting to SW19 - certainly that great Australian wit, Clive James, liked to believe the gutteral noise bamboozled Jimbo’s opponents, who were never quite sure whether to hit the “Unngh!” or the serve.

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If this pair ever engaged in a rally - and in the first set only twice did they get beyond nine shots - then No 2 seed Sabalenka would pump up the volume of her emoting with every hit.

Karolina Pliskova on her way to winning a semi-final slug-fest to reach the women's final
Karolina Pliskova on her way to winning a semi-final slug-fest to reach the women's final

This alarmed the crowd who thought they should titter. There was also laughing when Sabalenka demonstrated her soccer skills with a stray ball, the fans possibly hoping for a smile. But it wasn’t that kind of match.

So often described as the best woman on the tour never to win a major, Pliskova ignored The Grunt and came back to triumph 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. “I still half like I can’t believe it,” she said. “This year I’ve played lots of super tough players who would always go deep into the tournaments. I think I was close to a good level but somehow not able to win those matches. It’s not that I was playing horrible. I wasn’t really doing anything wrong and was just missing a little bit. Just to hang in there is super important, which I did.

“I knew this match was going to be super close because we both serve big so there would only be small chances. I thought it was going to be super hard to win and it was.”

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Sabalenka was tattooed at 18 and while her dad laughed when shown the tiger on the left forearm, Mum didn’t speak to her for a week. Pliskova acquired her Maori designs even younger, at 15.

Presumably Sabalenka’s inspiration wasn’t from a children’s book, either Tigger or The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In the first set she played like neither and only needed one break point to win it. That the opportunity was achieved with the most delicate of drop shots was a surprise and a delight after so much wham-bam, bish-bash and nip and tuck.

While Sabalenka roared after every point whether won or lost, Pliskova remained inscrutable and ice-cool throughout, though failure to take any of the nine break points on offer in that set must have been frustrating. In the second, though, she achieved an early advantage and didn’t let it go. The deciding set actually produced rallies, and some pretty exciting ones, before Pliskova achieved match-point. Sabalenka hit more aces - 18 - but with her 14th the Czech won the contest that mattered and, finally, permitted herself a smile.

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