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By Richard Pagliaro
© Fred Mullane and Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA

(June 29, 2010) Stutter stepping between points to remind herself to move her feet, Venus Williams couldn't quite put together the proper pacing of her game or gain ground
on a front-running Tsvetana Pironkova.

Out of step and out of sync, Williams soon found herself bounced out of the tournament she had dominated in reaching the final in eight of the last 10 years.

In one of the most monumental upsets in Wimbledon history, World No. 82 Pironkova masterfully mixed up the pace of her shots in luring Williams into an implosion of errors. By the time the dust had settled, Pironkova pulled off a shocking 6-2, 6-3 conquest of the five-time Wimbledon winner.

"Honestly, it seems like a dream, actually," Pironkova said. "Coming here I never thought I would play that well. I'm extremely happy. I think I played pretty well today. I'm very happy with my game."


The 22-year-old Pironkova had never surpassed the second round in 18 prior major appearances, but became the first Bulgarian women to reach a major semifinal in handing Williams the worst beating of her Wimbledon career.

It's been 13 years since her Wimbledon debut. Aside from her decade-long streak of success at The Championships, the 30-year-old Williams has not reached another major final since the 2003 Australian Open. But she shot down suggestions the loss would cause her to question her career future.

"Well, why wouldn't I want to pursue this?" Williams said. "I'm pretty good at it most days. Today I didn't seem to be the best tennis player, but for the most part, I rock and roll this game. I'll give it up when I'm just terrible. It would take more than just a few bad days in a year to make me quit tennis. So that's not even in the equation."

The second-seeded American entered the match with a 68-8 career record at The Championships, including an 8-2 mark in quarterfinals. None of that mattered much to Pironkova, who delivered a performance of such poise even Richard Williams, Venus' father, was applauding by the end of the match.

The upset was the first in a day that signaled a seismic shift in the bottom of the women's draw. When Pironkova was done dismantling Williams on Court 1, the result was flashed on the adjacent Centre Court sending startled murmurs among the crowd. Seated on her court-side seat with a towel draped over her head, Vera Zvonareva didn't even glance up at the scoreboard. She was too busy wrapping up her own upsest win.

Winless in five prior meetings with Kim Clijsters, No. 21 seed Zvonareva stunned the eighth-seeded Belgian, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, on Centre Court. Zvonareva is a former top 10 player so her victory is not nearly as jolting as Pironkova's stunner, but the combination of successive surprises turned the tournament draw upside down.

In a matter of 20 minutes, two women who had never reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal sent the pair of former World No. 1 players packing.

Befuddled by Pironkova's slice forehand, off-pace shots and ability to follow a floater with a laser-like backhand down the line, Williams never found her comfort zone and littered the lawn with 29 errors. In contrast, Pironkova played clean, controlled tennis in committing just six unforced errors.


British bookmakers cast Pironkova has a 150-1 shot to win Wimbledon before this match. Now, she's one win removed from the Wimbledon final.

Given the fact Pironkova had never been beyond the second round in five prior Wimbledon appearances, including three consecutive first-round exits, the prospect of her beating Williams seemed as likely as the All England Club supplanting its trademark strawberries-and-cream with peanut butter-and-jelly. The mere idea of an upset may have seemed inconceivable to many, but Pironkova believed it because she had already achieved it.

In her Grand Slam debut, the then 18-year-old Bulgarian bounced Venus out of the opening round of the 2006 Australian Open, 2-6, 6-0, 9-7.

"I think I played pretty well today. I am very happy with my game," Pironkova said. "She also did well. But you know I had one win over her and I actually thought I could win and I was going for it."

Adopting a similar tactical approach she deployed in Melbourne, Pironkova put plenty of balls back in play, mixed up the speeds, spins and height of her shots and was particularly effective in forcing Williams to confront short balls on the forehand side.

The forehand has always been Williams weaker wing as she sometimes struggles to impart enough spin on that stroke to clear the net. Williams had trouble today digging out low balls on her forehand, her normally reliable backhand was sporadic in the first set and her vaunted serve, typically the white-out that can cover up her errors on grass, let her down.

Pironkova converted 4 of 12 break points and won 15 of the 27 points played on Williams' serve.

It was Williams who had the first good look to break. Pironkova banged a backhand down the line into net to hand Williams two break points, but she saved both to hold for 3-2.

The first set turned in the next game.

The second-seeded Williams held game point and had a fairly routine overhead, but she opted to hit back to Pironkova and paid the price losing a net exchange. When Williams hooked a backhand wide, Pironkova broke for 4-2.

Two games later, Williams was staring into the sun on serve and hit successive double faults followed by a forehand wide to hand Pironkova double set point. Williams barely caught the back of the baseline with a forehand winner down the line to save the first set point and erased the second on a return error.

A Williams backhand strayed wide to give Pironkova another set point. Williams attacked behind a crosscourt backhand and Pironkova fired a backhand pass down the line to take first set, 6-2, in 37 minutes.

The former World No. 1 showed some signs of life in the early stages of the second set. Williams saved a break point to hold for 1-all and took advantage of a net cord to send a backhand winner by the long-legged Bulgarian and break for 2-1.

That was the last time Williams would hold the lead.

The depths of Pironkova's desire and her creative solutions to problems Williams posed was evident in the fourth game when Williams hit a full-stretch forehand drop volley that seemed certain to die in the grass until a streaking Pironkova caught up to the ball and lofted a lob winner to earn a break point. Two points later, Williams netted a flat forehand as Pironkova broke back for 2-all.

Pironkova drew a backhand error to break Williams' serve for the fourth time in her last five service games and take a 4-2 advantage.

The declarative grunt sounded like a plaintive wail when Williams tried in vain to block back a return in the seventh game. Pironkova held for 5-2 and though Williams saved match points to hold for 3-5, she could not continue the comeback.

Successive service winners gave Pironkova two more match points. Williams attacked net and pushed a forehand volley wide as Pironkova fell flat on her her back and soaked in the moment while staring straight up at the sky.


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