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Can Pliskova finally deliver when it matters?

(Reuters) - When a list of leading women’s title contenders is drawn up ahead of any Grand Slam, big-serving Czech Karolina Pliskova’s name is inevitably on it. So far that is as far as it goes.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - LiveScore Cup - I. Czech Lawn Tennis Club, Prague, Czech Republic - June 6, 2020 Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova in action during her match against Czech Republic's Tereza Martincova, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) REUTERS/David W Cerny

The 28-year-old has been a fixture in the top-10 since 2016, boasts ferocious firepower and has won 16 career titles, but when it comes to the majors her record is underwhelming.

Only once, at the 2016 U.S. Open, has she reached a final, losing to Germany’s Angelique Kerber, and since then has reached only two semi-finals. It’s a record that inevitably raises doubts about her ability to cope with the big moments.

That said, she will enter this year’s U.S. Open as the top seed, thanks to the no-shows of Ash Barty and Simona Halep, and with a host of other big names missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she may never have a better chance to win a major.

With the re-surfaced Flushing Meadows hardcourts expected to play considerably faster this year, suiting her explosive game, she will certainly have no excuses.

Her serve is a lethal weapon. She banged down a Tour-leading 488 aces last year, although only at the Australian Open where she reached the semi-final did she shine at a Grand Slam.

She began this year with a third-round exit in Melbourne when, as the second seed, was bundled out by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the kind of result that has dogged her throughout her career and frustrated her biggest fans.

Pliskova was quick to support the U.S. Open’s plans to go ahead without fans, and the strange circumstances might even help her get over the line, according to former men’s champion Boris Becker as he ran the rule over the women’s draw.

“If (the courts) play fast that will make her feel comfortable and maybe the fact that there will be no fans helps her more than some because she’s had trouble fulfilling expectations on the big showcourts,” he told Reuters.

“She gets a little nervous, so it might be an advantage with nobody watching. But it’s a big question mark.”

Pliskova has appeared in the main draw of every Grand Slam since the 2013 Australian Open -- a run of 29 -- and will be acutely aware that the window of opportunity will be narrowing as young guns come forward.

“She is the most unpredictable of the top players,” Martina Navratilova said in a conference call for Tennis Channel this week. “She hasn’t come through in the majors and she knows it. The longer that goes on, the more the pressure goes.”

Her latest quest begins against Ukraine’s 145th-ranked Anhelina Kalinina but the draw has not been especially kind and a potential second round against France’s dangerous Caroline Garcia would be a major test of her Grand Slam credentials.

Assuming Pliskova reaches the second week, former champion Kerber could await in the last 16.

Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis

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