Welcome to A Beginner’s Guide, a new series on TTI which promises to shine a light on the game’s less talked-about talent, and why they’re worth making part of your tennis conversation.
Meet Tsvetana Pironkova.
A veteran at 27, the Bulgarian would appear to be making a descent down the rankings to start 2015. But as anyone who knows anything about the former World No. 31 will tell you, there’s more to Pironkova than meets the eye.
She made her WTA breakthrough just under a decade ago, reaching the semifinals of Istanbul as a qualifier ranked outside the Top 200. Once there, she took just four games from eventual champion Venus Williams.
Remember that match-up; it will come in handy later.
Two months later, she reached another WTA semifinal in Palermo, earning her first Top 30 win along the way. Though succeeding at smaller events, she failed to qualify for either major tournament that year, establishing herself as anything but a top tier player heading into 2006.
Those smaller tournaments did help in a major way, as they allowed her to crack the Top 100 and earn direct entry into the Australian Open where she faced – guess who? – reigning Wimbledon champion and No. 10 seed, Venus Williams.
In a mismatched kit, the unsponsored, inexperienced Pironkova looked poised for another quick loss to the decorated American, falling behind to lose the first set, 6-2.
From there, things got interesting.
The Bulgarian proceeded to bagel Williams in the second, eventually gutting out a 9-7 final set, hitting 22 unforced errors to her opponent’s 65. “Obviously she benefited from my largesse,” Williams said after the match.
“If I had 10 less errors, I think this match is a different story.”
In the next few years, it seemed like that was the story. It hadn’t been the first time Williams had, by the numbers, hit herself off the court, and barring a run to the quarterfinals of Rome in 2008 – beating future French Open champ Ana Ivanovic along the way – Pironkova largely faded from view.
Four years later, Williams and Pironkova met again, this time at Wimbledon, the American’s favorite tournament. Pironkova had snuck through a soft section of the draw to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, but the #narrative going in was all about Williams, and her opportunity for revenge.
Pironkova emphatically flipped the script; after a few tight opening games, the Bulgarian tactically eviscerated the five-time Wimbledon winner, mixing up the pace and gunning winners off her two-handed backhand to knock Williams out in straight sets.
Against Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals, Pironkova had her chances – even leading the Russian by a set – before coming back to earth in three.
In spite of the invariable loss, the Legend of Tsvetana Pironkova was born.
Quiet form in the year following – aside from a three-set struggle against sister Serena on the grass of Eastbourne – would take the Bulgarian back to the site of her greatest result with a mountain of points to defend and the toughest possible draw. Seeded No. 32, Pironkova drew No. 2 Zvonareva in the third round and No. 23 Williams in the fourth. Surely, she wouldn’t get past the struggling Zvonareva, and even if she did, surely a recently-returning Williams wouldn’t lose a third straight time.
Pironkova beat them both, Williams by the exact same score.
Officially a grass court specialist, Pironkova pushed eventual champion Kvitova in the quarterfinals, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska at the next two Wimbledons. For all of her peaks on the sport’s most hallowed ground, for all of her upsets, the Bulgarian had never won a title, not even reached a final.
Leave it to Pironkova to win when no one expects it. Languishing in Sydney qualifying in 2014, she won eight straight matches, including three more Top 10 wins over Sara Errani, Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber in the final.
With no other major results last season, the Bulgarian came back to Sydney unseeded, even denied a main draw wildcard. Though ultimately unable to defend her lone title, she certainly made organizers look bad anyway, reaching the semifinals.
What can she do Down Under? Who knows?
But with Pironkova, “who knows” is half the fun.
Hand: Right (two-handed backhand)
WTA Titles: 1 (Sydney 2014)
Career High Rank: No. 31 (10/31/10)
Best Slam Result: Semifinals (Wimbledon 2010)
Biggest Win: Venus Williams (No. 2, Wimbledon 2010)
Best Quote: “We have no grass-courts in Bulgaria actually.”
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