Gustavo Kuerten was playing his third career Grand Slam main draw at the 1997 French Open. He won one match at that year’s Australian Open, but that was it. For all intents and purposes, “Guga” came out of nowhere to win the title at Roland Garros, his first career championship.
“'I never won a title,” Kuerten said after the match. “That's why I don't know how to open champagne.”
Karolina Pliskova has won titles before – six in fact, including a big victory in Cincinnati just before this US Open – but she has never had significant success at the Grand Slams. This trip to Flushing Meadows marked the first time that she has ever made it past the third round at a major, making every ensuing round unchartered territory for the Czech.
“I was kind of nervous this morning, or let's say before the match. But always when I get on the court I just forget about everything and I'm not nervous anymore,” Pliskova said after her Wednesday quarterfinal victory over teenager Ana Konjuh. “I'm just trying to play tennis. Maybe I will think about all what I have been playing last few weeks after the tournament, but right now I just don't want to put it in too much inside me."
Not many players have done what Pliskova has done this far: making the semifinal of a Slam after never making it past the third round beforehand. On the women’s side, Timea Bacsinszky was the last player to do so when she reached the semifinals of the 2015 French Open. Since Kuerten won his first major crown 19 years ago, only 14 men who had never advanced past the third round before have made at least the semis, with four of those players making the final in that tournament.
Pliskova said that despite it being her first time playing this deep into a Grand Slam, she has not faced all that much pressure.
“I'm sure always when you play someone who is better than you, it's a little bit different because you don't have any pressure,” said Pliskova, who acknowledged facing some pressure facing Konjuh since she was the favorite as the No. 10 seed. “I just gonna go and play everything that I have and put everything in that match, because I have nothing to lose. Of course, maybe in the beginning I'm expecting some nerves a little bit, but I don't want to have this in the whole match.”
Despite playing great tennis thus far, Pliskova faces a much tougher obstacle Thursday night in the form of No. 1 seed Serena Williams. While she is not heading into the match thinking that she has no chance, Pliskova is being realistic about what she is trying to achieve.
“It would be a dream, but unfortunately I'm in the part of the draw with Serena, so it would be very tough to get through this one,” Pliskova said. “So I'm not gonna think about the finals yet. Obviously, I know there is a chance. Always there is a chance. So I'm going to do everything for, you know, get at least close to the final.”
If she should pull off the stunner, Pliskova would be the first woman since Amelie Mauresmo to make a Slam final after not reaching the round-of-16 prior. Mauresmo would lose to Martina Hingis in straight sets. The only player in a similar situation to win the title was Barbara Jordan at the Australian Open in 1979, but the draw size was 32 at that tournament. The US Open was still a 128 draw, Wimbledon had a 128 draw that included byes and the French Open fielded 64 players, and she had not advanced past the third round in those tournaments.
“I'm just looking forward to this challenge,” Pliskova said. “Like I said, anything is possible.”