“Ready, Play” (Part II): Waiting in the Weeds – The Legends of Grassonkova and Grasszek

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It's been a long road back for Tamira Paszek. Photo by Christopher Levy
It’s been a long road back for Tamira Paszek. Photo by Christopher Levy

With mere hours to go until first ball at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, my common-law twin David Kane from Tennis View Magazine and #backhandcompliments joins me for Part II of our “Ready, Play” series, a shameless, cross-promotional jaunt through the #WimbleWeird archives. You can read Part I of our retrospective, a reflection on Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki’s 2013 Championship, here.  

Victoria Chiesa: Welcome back to my humble abode, David. I know I’ve said I’ve been back!!11! more times than Ana Ivanovic, but I’ve changed the locks to this place and gotten a new set of keys. After discussing Marion and Sabine’s fairy tale fortnight from a year ago, I felt it only right to give some love to the two women who first popularized the Cinderella-esque Wimbledon run: Tsvetana Pironkova and Tamira Paszek. Both unseeded and looming before it was mainstream. Thanks for the inspiration, ladies. I owe you.

Two of the most enigmatic players have had two incredibly different routes to this year’s Wimbledon Championships. Each is a protagonist of her own urban legend, if you will. One’s had a long road back, and the other’s never left. Let’s start with Paszek, a woman who’s gone from teen prodigy, to top-30 stalwart, to also ran. Despite being on the WTA for almost a decade, she’s still just 23 years old.

David Kane: Hi Victoria, love what you’ve done with the place. I’ll try not to Single White Female you on the WordPress theme, but no promises.

To illustrate how long Tamira Paszek has been part of the greater tennis consciousness, look no further than the big name who first believed she had top 5 talent: Justine Henin. The Austrian took Henin to three sets at the 2007 Dubai Tennis Championships with her now-infamous flat groundstrokes and relentless aggression. That fearless ground game was on display again later that year at the US Open with a run to the 4th round. But it was the first round Australian Open encounter with Jelena Jankovic the defines pre-Grasszek mythology. The Austrian had the future No. 1 on the ropes in a no-ad final set, breaking the Serb multiple times to serve for the match. Against a less wily opponent, Paszek may have escaped on one of the many match points she earned.

Despite serving notice, Paszek struggles to remain healthy, a long absence between 2009 and 2010 undoing her early progress. A top 5 contender, now considered by many to be a grass court specialist. What gives?

VC: A back injury derailed much of Paszek’s late teens, and her game lacked much of the punch that it featured before her hiatus. At the end of 2010, she was back in the winner’s circle with a title in Quebec City, but her 2011 season was nothing to write home about until she arrived at Wimbledon. She played one of the matches of the year, possibly one of the best matches I’ve ever seen, to upset Francesca Schiavone in the third round, 3-6, 6-4, 11-9 and eventually reached the quarterfinals. You couldn’t have written a better script, really. She was knocked off her teen prodigy perch, returned from a career-threatening injury and played captivating tennis to reach the last eight. That’s pretty hard to top, but Paszek’s return to the Wimbledon quarterfinals the next year was even more impressive.

She came into Eastbourne with a 2-13 match record and marched all the way to the title, saving five match points against Angelique Kerber in the final. All of a sudden, people weren’t praying for her ranking, but for her to land far away from their favorite player in the draw.

DK: Among many others since her fall from the top of the rankings, fans of Caroline Wozniacki saw their prayer go unanswered at Wimbledon. Paszek and Wozniacki would play the match of the tournament, and this time it would be Wozniacki who would see match points go against her by inches and the Austrian put her away in three sets. It was an businesslike return to the quarterfinals from there, only to lose to Victoria Azarenka for the second year in a row.

For the casual fan, late Spring 2012 marks the Austrian’s last flirtation with relevance, as the losses continued to pile up over the next 12 months. By last August, Paszek was forced to play qualifying at the US Open after being seeded the year before. A successful outing in French Open qualifying and a solid grass court warm-up has gotten her some buzz among those nostalgic for her ball-bashing game. Is it warranted this time around?

VC: Despite drawing last year’s semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens in the opening round, I’m optimistic about Paszek’s chances. The Belgian hasn’t been in great form this year, and struggled with a knee injury in a loss to Elina Svitolina in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The winner is in a section of the draw that will presumably determine Maria Sharapova’s fourth round opponent, and looks one Angelique Kerber sarcastic shrug away from collapse. Do I think Paszek could make it there? Sure. But so could Lourdes Dominguez Lino.

Paszek launched herself back into relevance at the 2011 WImbledon Championships, but Tsvetana Pironkova started the giant-killing trend a year earlier. The woman who came into the tournament ranked No. 82 found herself a set away from the women’s final nearly two weeks later. Forget Wacky Wednesday – let’s take a moment to appreciate Pironkova’s genius.

I didn’t actually mean *a moment.* How unhelpful are you, YouTube.

DK: When Paszek made her Wimbledon runs, it felt like promise fulfilled. Nobody saw Tsvetana Pironkova coming. As she eased into her first major quarterfinal in 2010, few paid attention as she had been in an ostensibly broken part of the draw and though she’d beaten Marion Bartoli, neither were considered contenders against five-time Wimbledon winner Venus Williams. Fewer remembered the Bulgarian’s shock win over the American at the 2006 Australian Open. But none of that seemed to matter as Pironkova dominated Williams from start to finish. Into her first major semifinal, she led Vera Zvonareva by a set before fading in three. The run may have been over, but the Ballad of Tsvetana Pironkova had just begun. So often in tennis, the sequel can be better than the original. How does Pironkova’s second Wimbledon run compared to her first?

VC: Coming into Wimbledon in 2011, most stifled a chuckle and an eye roll when debating if Pironkova could spark even a single bolt of the lightning in a bottle that she caught 12 months earlier. She fell one match short of the previous year’s feat in 2011, but if anything, her quarterfinal showing was more impressive. She dropped three games in the first round against Camila Giorgi, who’s become a bit of a Wimbledon wunderkind in her own right, before dropping just five games to both her 2010 conqueror Zvonareva and Venus again. The three-set quarterfinal she and Kvitova played was a dramatic spectacle, and if Pironkova had won it, she very well could’ve won the title. I’m not even joking. If three of the four slams were still played on grass….

Pironkova’s 2012 Wimbledon campaign was logically ended in a 7-6 6-7 6-0 loss to Maria Sharapova in the second round, but she reached the fourth round last year before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska. Pironkova’s already had the token highlight of her year by winning her first WTA title in Sydney, but the draw is perfectly set up for her to reach the second week yet again. Varvara Lepchenko, Caroline Garcia or Sara Errani and then possibly Ekaterina Makarova or Kimiko Date-Krumm? Hardly the murderer’s row she’s used to.

DK: I’m glad you brought up Sydney, because that was arguably more shocking than either of her Wimbledon runs. Three top 10 wins, eight matches in little over a week, all as a sub-top 100 qualifier? She predictably lost early in Melbourne, but that was a week to remember. Though she hasn’t made it to the quarterfinals in the last two years, she hasn’t had a bad loss at the All-England Club, even stretching eventual semifinalist Radwanska to three sets one year ago. She’s proven not to be a draw-dependent floater, but can we honestly expect so much from the Queen of the Unexpected?

So who do you have making it farther this fortnight? Do you bank on Paszek’s potential or Pironkova’s past?

VC: While Paszek looked thrilled to earn her way into the main draw, her reaction might’ve actually been one of relief rather than anything else. She’s been forced to toil away on the ITF Circuit for a year, and she’ll have a nice payday coming her way regardless. Does that satisfy a former prodigy, or does she want more? Pironkova might’ve lost her opening round match at Eastbourne, but she’s got a reputation to uphold.

I haven’t seen enough of Paszek this year to adequately judge where her form and fitness are this season, and I think her opening round against Flipkens will provide a benchmark for answering some of those questions. I can’t ignore the openness of Pironkova’s draw, but Lepchenko did singlehandedly derail the campaign of my Roland Garros dark horse, Petra Cetkovska. It’s a tough one, but I’ll take Pironkova.

DK: Based on the draw, it would be easy to say Pironkova. But Paszek has been steadily improving and has proven she doesn’t derive that much confidence from wins. Someone like Paszek plays with an inner belief that they deserve to be considered among the game’s elite. Pironkova’s Wimbledon runs can come off as comic relief when nobody really expects them to catalyze a true major breakthrough. None of this is to say her opponents shouldn’t take Pironkova seriously, but I would imagine Paszek takes herself seriously and can more easily channel that combination of belief and ability into a successful tournament.

VC: Our tea’s gone cold and the biscuit tin’s empty, so I think that brings an end to our two-part preview series for the 2014 Wimbledon Championships. And we’ve got 10 whole hours to stock up on more snacks! Thanks to David for joining me here at unseeded & looming, and for all of your snarky but fabulous women’s tennis news, Chrissie Evert memes and GIF-analysis, check out his blog #backhandcompliments.

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2 thoughts on ““Ready, Play” (Part II): Waiting in the Weeds – The Legends of Grassonkova and Grasszek

    […] DK: 10s across the board, undoubtedly. Thanks for joining me, Victoria. We may yet acquire Marion’s winged sneaker accessory, but we certainly flew through this discussion. Be sure to check out Victoria’s blog unseeded & looming for irreverently insightful content and a Part II to this conversation where we explore two more modern grass court legends: Tamira Paszek and…. […]

    dollymix said:
    July 11, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Wow, that first Jankovic match point save is awesome – don’t think I’d ever seen it before.

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