Before her bounteous grass-court summer began, Katie Boulter had not beaten a single top 40 player in her life. Her total record against top 50 opposition was 4-14, not where a player with such high aspirations would like to be, and she was yet to truly fly in the biggest moments. But still, some believed that Boulter would come to enjoy the bigger occasions and thrive in the face of the toughest challenges.
On the biggest stage of all, Center Court, Boulter’s reputation accorded with reality in spectacular fashion as she produced the biggest win of her career to upset Karolina Pliskova, the sixth seed and last year’s finalist, reaching a grand slam third round for the first time in her career with a 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 win.
Her victory was the highlight of yet another positive day for British players. Heather Watson reached the third round at Wimbledon for the fourth time in her career by defeating Wang Qiang 7-5, 6-4. Liam Broady, meanwhile, went deeper than ever at a grand slam, defeating Diego Schwartzman, the 12th seed, 6-2, 4-6, 0-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1.
“I got absolutely no words right now, I’m literally shaking,” said Boulter after her win. Despite her speechlessness, Boulter had entered the match with palpable belief. After starting the grass-court season by clinching a career best win over No.35 Alison Riske in Birmingham, just last week Boulter edged out Pliskova herself 6-4 in the third set for her first ever top 10 win. Pliskova, meanwhile, has been a shadow of herself since returning from hand surgery in March.
“I think it really helped me,” said Boulter. “It’s easy to say I believe I can win this match. But to have actually gone out and done it a week before, it does make the difference.”
With obvious weapons at her disposal, Boulter’s abilities are no secret. She stands at 5’11”, blessed with a forceful first serve and a weighty forehand that she constantly looks to dictate with. She knows that she has the tools to pierce most defenses.
But the best players in the world prod at her weaknesses, exposing her defense, and Pliskova’s controlled aggression triumphed in the first set. Throughout a scrappy second set, though, Boulter began to impose herself. She crucially kept hold of her serve in the second half and then she was the most consistent player in the tiebreak.
With the match level, Boulter forged ahead. She served extremely well in the third set, breezing through her own service games while battering Pliskova’s second serve. An opening finally arose at 4-4 as she punctuated a tremendous return game with a crushing backhand down-the-line effort. With the best win of her life from her on the line, she attacked nervelessly until the end.
Moments after victory, as she took in her achievement and the Center Court crowd roared, tears welled in Boulter’s eyes. She reflected both on the family that had come to support her and those who could not be there: “I’m probably going to cry,” she said. “My great passed away two days ago and I just want to dedicate this to her.”
Three years ago, Boulter had established herself inside the top 100 and put herself in position to regularly contest these matches. But then a stress fracture in her back forced her out. Having been ranked highly enough to compete at Wimbledon on merit in 2019, she was forced to withdraw. She ended the year outside of the top 300.
It has been a long road back. As Boulter has tried to rise back up the rankings, (she is now ranked No.118), any progress she made was stunted by continuous injury issues. Then there was the challenge of humbling herself to playing the lower level ITF events she thought she had finally escaped. Only during this year’s grass season, with wildcard opportunities on to the big stages, have things finally come together.
“I feel like I’ve shown in some of the matches recently some of the stuff that I’m capable of,” she said earlier in the week. “It’s just doing it day in, day out. For me, that is the toughest challenge. Of course, I’ve got so much to work on in my game. I really feel like I can push on. But I do feel like I can compete with a lot of the best players in the world.”
On Center Court, those feelings were fully realised. She next faces Harmony Tan of France, who defeated Serena Williams, with a great opportunity to move deeper into the tournament and enjoy even bigger matches to come.
As numerous British players thrived, the British No.2 Harriet Dart was unable to overcome Jessica Pegula, the 12th seed, who reached the third round with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 win.