PARIS (Reuters) - Few people expected Karolina Pliskova to reach the French Open semi-finals and even the Czech, who admits to having limited claycourt skills, did not back herself for such an achievement.
The world number three played safely throughout the match in windy conditions to beat Caroline Garcia 7-6(3) 6-4 and end the French presence in the main draw on Wednesday.
Garcia joins Kristina Mladenovic, beaten by Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in her quarter-final on Tuesday, on the exit route at Roland Garros, where the French bubble has burst in a couple of days.
On a packed Court Philippe Chatrier, 28th seed Garcia fought all the way, but Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open finalist, was simply doing everything a little bit better.
“So far still before this tournament I was struggling on clay with almost everything. Didn’t have my weapons on my side and the movement was terrible,” Pliskova, who next faces former French Open runner-up Simona Halep, told a news conference.
“...I don’t think it’s better, but somehow I‘m just winning.”
Her improvement in the claycourt major bears similarities with the career of Russia’s Maria Sharapova, a self-described ‘cow on ice’ on the red dirt who still managed to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Cup twice.
Pliskova is taking baby steps.
“Today I can finally say I felt a little bit better on the court compared to the last matches,” she said. “Yeah, the serve was good, which is also important.”
Now the 25-year-old is one win away from becoming world number one next week.
“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, You have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was like, there is no chance I make the final here,” she said with a smile.
But Pliskova is almost there.
She had never made it past the second round here and, after sometimes struggling in previous rounds, she perfectly handled Garcia, who was looking to become the first Frenchwoman in the last four since Marion Bartoli in 2011.
Despite the swirling winds sweeping the court, Pliskova made only 13 unforced errors -- one every two games -- while Garcia hit 31.
The local favourite held serve in the second set until the 10th game, when Pliskova scooped a lob that handed her a match point which she converted confidently with a forehand winner.
Next up is Romanian third seed Halep, a French Open finalist in 2014 who gave herself a second chance after saving a match point in her quarter-final win over Elina Svitolina.
“I‘m playing against somebody who I would say is one of the best girls on clay,” said Pliskova, who has lost four of her five encounters with Halep -- none on clay, though.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris