Karolina Pliskova hits the backhand return against Shuai Zhangat the...

Karolina Pliskova hits the backhand return against Shuai Zhangat the U.S. Open on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The Open’s No. 1 women’s seed and the world’s No. 1 player was in survival mode on Saturday and she barely kept her head above water.

Fighting through a score of break points against her, and a sore right arm, Karolina Pliskova held off Shuai Zhang, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

“I think I’m playing in quite big waves this tournament so far,” said Pliskova, who was runnerup to Angelique Kerber in the Open last year and took over Kerber’s No. 1 ranking this summer. “So I think sometimes I think I play good shots, good rallies, and then there is hundreds of mistakes and not a good shot.”

After her second-set win, she called in the trainer for a medical timeout to tend to her right serving arm which said was tightening up. “I did some recovery and just saw the physios and some ice bath,” she said. “Hopefully it will be fine. Just felt a little bit tight during the match.”

Pliskova abandoned caution and went for a big forehand down the line on match point. “I felt like she was really playing tactically well, so I was still the one who was running,” said Pliskova. “She was using the forehand, the crosscourt, the angle. She hit pretty good. I didn’t feel like going for my forehand down the line today that much. So I think there was just few of them. Maybe two.”

The second one was enough.

Pliskova’s run to the final last year included a semifinal win over Serena Williams, signaling that perhaps another Grand Slam winner was on the immediate horizon. She reached the quarters at Australia this season and the semifinals at Roland Garros. She also has three titles this year. Still, she’s blunt when assessing the state of her game, not trying to cloak it with false confidence or deny the pressure she feels.

“Last Grand Slam of the season and knowing you played fine last year, you just want to play that good again,” said Pliskova. “I don’t feel like I’m playing that good again, but I’m still in the draw, actually, so I’m not going to be that sad.”

And now that her ranking and finish last year make her prime time on Ashe, she’s not sure it’s always a good thing.

“The only experience I think is from the big matches I was playing and from the Arthur Ashe Stadium,” she said. “Definitely something positive on it, but also, it’s kind of like tough for me this year to play here.”

And why would that be?

“Like, I played final, my only final in the major,” Pliskova said. “Never was in this position to defend a final of major. And I’m first seeded, so it’s, like, totally different story than I played last year.”

But it’s one she’s still writing and she gets surprising American Jennifer Brady next.

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