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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Fired and back: Naomi Osaka’s former coach resurrects former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova

FeaturedSports NewsFired and back: Naomi Osaka's former coach resurrects former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova

Former world number ones don’t usually go under the radar at the Australian Open, but Karolina Pliskova has cruised into the last 16 at Melbourne Park almost unnoticed — and yet to drop a set.

The 30-year-old Czech defeated 97th-ranked Russian Varvara Gracheva 6-4, 6-2 in the third round on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena.

It was a vintage performance from the 30th seed, a two-time Grand Slam finalist.

He served six aces and dropped just 11 points in his nine service games and, on this form, should be considered a threat to any top seed.

This was in stark contrast to last season when she fell from fourth in the world at the start of the year to 31st, her lowest year-end ranking since 2013.

Along the way, she crashed out of the 277th-ranked qualifier in the second round of the French Open as her luck on the court hit rock bottom.

Another second-round exit at Wimbledon prompted her to fire coach Sascha Bajan, the German who guided Naomi Osaka to back-to-back Grand Slam titles at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open.

In December he rehired Bajain. “Thank you for bringing me back,” the coach tweeted. “Let’s get it.”

The reunion has ignited a spark within the Czech, who became world number one again in July 2017.

Pliskova has hardly been threatened all tournament in Melbourne, dropping just 15 games in six sets so far.

She blew out the dangerous Grisheva, who had beaten eighth seed Daria Kasatkina in the first round.

It puts Pliskova into the last 16 of the Australian Open for the fourth time, where she will meet China’s 23rd seed Zhang Shuai, who beat American qualifier Katie Valentes 6-3, 6-2 on Saturday.

Pliskova lost in the third round at Melbourne Park in both 2020 and 2021, and was out last year with injury.

Her best was the 2019 semifinals where she lost to Osaka — coached by Bajin.

“The last two years have been tough, especially missing the Australian Open last year,” Pliskova said after a 77-minute rampage.

“I’ve been playing pretty well earlier this year. Excited to be here, just enjoying it, happy to be back on Center Court with a two-set victory, yeah.”

Pliskova, who has won 16 career singles titles, first hired Bajan in November 2020 and helped her reach the 2021 Wimbledon final.

She also reached the final of the US Open back in 2016 and is looking for a first Grand Slam crown with her last WTA title in Brisbane three years ago.

Bujan, the 2018 WTA Coach of the Year, has also worked with Serena Williams, Kristina Mladenovic and Diana Yastremska.

“It takes a big man to admit something and it can’t be easy to ask your old coach back,” the WTA website quoted Bijan as saying. “For that, I’m grateful.”

(Tags translated) Karolina Pliskova

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