Tsvetana Pironkova received one of the roughest Wimbledon draws imaginable when her name landed alongside No.7 seed Belinda Bencic.
And although she bowed out of the tournament in straight sets to the Swiss starlet, there’s no denying Pironkova’s grasscourt credentials.
The Bulgarian upset former Wimbledon champions Marion Bartoli and Venus Williams en route to the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2010, and to prove it was no fluke, backed that up with the following year with a quarterfinal run at the All England Club, again defeating Venus along the way.
She reached the second week at Wimbledon again in 2013 and prior to this year’s tournament won five straight matches on grass to reach the quarterfinals in Birmingham as a qualifier.
The 28-year-old – who grew up in a country with no grass courts in sight – sat down with tennismash at Wimbledon and explained just how she came to be so good on them.
tennismash: This year you played another player who’s very successful on this surface – Bencic won junior Wimbledon and won Eastbourne last year. What did she do that made her so tough?
Tsvetana Pironkova: “Yeah it was definitely a very tough opponent. Belinda played great. Her serve was good, her groundstrokes were very powerful – that’s probably what I struggled with the most. And she didn’t make any mistakes as well (laughter). That’s what always makes it difficult. I was trying my best obviously but I was struggling with my serve unfortunately … I think that would have made the difference because on grass, serve is a big weapon.”
In your career you’ve had a lot of success at Wimbledon, and before coming here this year you made the quarters in Birmingham. So this seems to be a great surface for you. Can you explain what makes your game translate so well to grass?
“I think movement on grass is very specific. I feel I can move pretty well on this surface. And I also like the bounce. It’s not too high, not too low – it’s probably just perfect for my timing. What I like the most is when you hit a powerful shot, it really works (smiling). So the rallies are not too long, and I think for my game that’s good.”
Growing up in Bulgaria, were there many grass courts?
So when did you first see a grass court, or play on one?
“Actually the first time I played here, in quallies at Wimbledon. Which year, I’m not sure (it was 2005). That was my first Grand Slam.”
How do you prepare for that? Because it’s such a different surface, and so unusual for you given where you grew up. How did you approach it?
“I tried to prepare on artificial grass; we don’t have real grass, but we have artificial one. It’s not the same of course, but its kind of similar. I have to admit the first few years I played on grass, it was horrible for me. I guess it took some time for me to get used to the surface. It was very, very weird in the beginning (laughter). But at the same time it was kind of special and exciting.”
You talked about the way you play, your movement, the way the ball sits in your strike-zone on grass. What inspired your playing style?
“I think it developed pretty naturally. In the beginning when I was a youngster I played a lot more aggressively.”
Did you grow up on clay?
“On clay, yes. That was my style. I didn’t like long rallies, so I was always searching for the quick exit. But with tournaments, with bigger challengers, my style kind of changed. I started to – I guess I matured. With the aggressive play there comes mistakes, many (laughter). So I tried to limit my mistakes, I tried to play more wisely. And right now, I don’t think too much about it. I just like to, whatever comes, to find a different decision and approach, and I just do it.”
Your success is not just limited to grass. You won the Sydney International on hard court and reached the French Open quarterfinals on clay a few weeks ago. Would you say though that grass is your favourite surface?
“I would say that it probably is. Not only because it suits my style, but as I said, it’s kind of special, and maybe because it’s different – we only play three or four tournaments on grass a year, so it’s kind of nice to change the environment.”
So because of that, would you say this month on grass is your favourite time of the year?
“Yeah, I don’t know the most. But I’m excited about it, for sure, yes.”
What about the fact the grasscourt season has been extended to three weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Has that been something that you’ve embraced, or enjoyed?
“Yeah, very. I think there should be opportunities for all players. Some players like clay, others players like hard. Others like grass. It only makes since to have more tournaments on the (different) surface. Because right now the season is mostly hard court. And that probably works for some players more than the others. So I like that the grasscourt season getting longer. And I heard it might even be four weeks … I think for the crowds it’s probably even more interesting, because different people come, there’s some surprises, and it’s more exciting I guess.”
Who would you say, of the women playing today, have a game that best suits grass?
“Hmm, there are quite a few. Well after our match, I would say Belinda (laughter). She’s doing pretty good on grass. Of course Kvitova. Very good game for grass courts. Serena, Azarenka – I guess the more powerful players play better on grass. But also Radwanska, she has a final here, so she’s also very successful on that surface. She’s not very powerful but she has a lot of feeling for the ball.”
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