Tsvetana Pironkova had never played on a grass court until five years ago but now the Bulgarian giant-killer is just one match away from the Wimbledon final.
Pironkova has defied her lowly position in the world rankings to make it to the last four at the All England Club after a sensational 6-2, 6-3 win over five-time champion Venus Williams in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
That stunning triumph, which followed a victory over 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli in the previous round, provided much-needed proof that it is not impossible to break the Williams sisters’ domination of the women’s game.
It also showed that Pironkova is a fast learner as she has just beaten one of the most successful players in Wimbledon history despite growing up in a country without a single grass court.
Bullseye: Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova hits a return to Venus Williams of the US at Wimbledon. Reuters
Until she entered Wimbledon, qualifying at nearby Roehampton in 2005, Pironkova had never set foot on a grass court.
The 22-year-old’s first experiences of the surface were not kind. She crashed out in qualifying.
Even though she made it to the main draw at Wimbledon for the next four years, Pironkova couldn’t get past the second round in four attempts and she felt the unique demands of grass-court tennis were completely beyond her.
“We have no grass courts in Bulgaria actually. I think it was five years ago here at Wimbledon at the qualifying when I first played on grass,” Pironkova says.
“Back then I thought, ‘Wow, it’s impossible. How can I play on this surface?”
“But with every match I play on grass I feel better and better.”
Growing up in Plovdiv, Pironkova wastaught tennis by her father Kiril, a formercanoe champion, and developed well enough to turn professional.
Her progress was slower after that and when she beat Venus Williams in the first round of the 2006 Australian Open, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime result for the teenager.
Her results since seemed to back that up. She has yet to win a title on the main WTA Tour and hadn’t been past the second round of a Grand Slam.
All that has changed in the last 10 days. She came from nowhere to make the last four.
A 6-4, 6-4 fourth round win over 11th seed Bartoli raised a few eyebrows but there was no expectation of a shock when she walked on to Court One behind the formidable figure of five-time champion Williams.
To beat a player who had appeared in eight of the last 10 Wimbledon finals, and to do it at the Grand Slam she always wanted to succeed at, left Pironkova shaking her head in disbelief.
“I still cannot believe that I reached the semi-finals. This is truly like a dream to me,” she says.
“Wimbledon has always been a religion to me. It’s the oldest tournament and growing up, every player is looking at Wimbledon. They say, ‘One day I want to play there.’ That’s like a dream.”
With her dreams fulfilled, it would hardly be surprising if Pironkova suffered a hangover in the semi-final.
But she is determined to learn from the aftermath of her win over Williams in 2006, when she lost in the next round.
“When I beat Williams at the Australian Open, there was so much attention. I was shocked,” she says.
“In the next match, I just couldn’t focus because of all the attention. Right now I think I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll just try to focus.”
While Pironkova tries to keep her cool, Zvonareva, who defeated Kim Clijsters 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, can’t wait for her shot at reaching a first Grand Slam final.
The 25-year-old, who was beaten in the Australian Open semi-finals in 2009, has often been let down by her fragile temperament, but she believes it is improving with age.
“I think it comes with experience,” she says. “You’re more mature. You know it is important just to forget what was before and try to concentrate on the next point.
“Right now, I have learnt a lot from the past, and I can do it much better now,” she adds.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org