Commentary

Serena and the Cinderellas

Updated: July 1, 2010, 11:15 AM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Petra Kvitova described it as a "dream." Tsvetana Pironkova said, "This is truly like a dream to me." Vera Zvonareva: "It's been one of my dreams."

They're not the only ones for whom it must be a dream. Defending champion Serena Williams' odds of defending her Wimbledon title, always good, increased dramatically when this unlikely trio joined her in reaching the semifinals.

Zvonareva is the only one to have beaten Williams, and that lone win in six meetings came in the summer of 2006, when Williams was returning from a six-month injury layoff.

And although all three should be capable of staying in their share of baseline rallies with Williams, none can hope to match her on serve -- particularly the way she's hitting it this week. Williams has won a tournament-leading 89 percent of points on her first serve and fired 73 aces. The next-highest total is 30 aces, hit by older sister Venus.

After the wild events of Tuesday, Serena insists she's not counting her chickens. "It's not mine to lose; it's mine to win if I can get it," she said.

But even she sounded a little disingenuous when she added, "They have just as good a chance as I do."

Do the others agree? "I don't think so, no," said Kvitova, Serena's semifinal opponent, when asked whether she thought she could be Wimbledon champion. "It's only two matches, but maybe I can lose [to] Serena."

Kvitova showed potential when defeating a stricken Dinara Safina to reach the fourth round of the U.S. Open last year, yet it's not hard to see why she has to stretch her imagination to see herself as Wimbledon champion in three days' time. The 20-year-old Czech, ranked No. 62, had lost in the first round of both her previous appearances at SW19 and had won just one match in her past five events.

But this fortnight, she has beaten former semifinalist Zheng Jie, 14-seed Victoria Azarenka and 3-seed Caroline Wozniacki in succession. Kvitova even scored bagel sets off Wozniacki and Azarenka, and the two brightest rising stars of the WTA had no explanation for their one-sided defeats except the quality of their opponent's play.

[+] EnlargeVera Zvonareva
Hamish Blair/Getty ImagesWhen she's not melting down, Vera Zvonareva is a tough competitor.

Armed with a power-stroking left-handed game, Kvitova also showed her fighting qualities when facing qualifier (but former No. 18) Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals. Pumping her fist after every point and shrieking with determination, she saved five match points and came from 4-0 down in the final set to win the closely fought encounter. From the look of things, a spot in the top 20 beckons for the Czech.

Pironkova, seeded even lower at No. 82, is a 22-year-old Bulgarian who is the first player from her country to reach the Wimbledon semifinals. She benefited from some upsets in her section in the first week but produced the stunner of the tournament by shocking five-time champion Venus Williams by the even more shocking score of 6-2, 6-3.

There had been only two unseeded women's semifinalists at Wimbledon in the past decade. Kvitova and Pironkova have matched that total this year alone.

Zvonareva's presence in the semifinals is not quite as unexpected, but of all the Cinderellas at this year's Championships, her transformation might be the biggest. Even while reaching the top 10 in 2004, the Russian was known more for throwing her racket after every missed point and breaking down in tears during matches.

Zvonareva, 25, eventually learned to keep her emotions under control, becoming less volatile and recovering from serious wrist problems to make a run at the top five last year. Then injury struck again -- she hurt her ankle during a match in Charleston, S.C., in April last year and struggled to return to full strength, having to withdraw from Wimbledon. As her confidence ebbed, the negative emotions began to bubble to the surface again.

Her meltdown against Flavia Pennetta at the 2009 U.S. Open was epic even by tennis standards. Zvonareva held six match points in the second set, playing some titanic points but failing to close out the match. She became hysterical as the chances slipped away -- screaming, swearing, sobbing, tearing at the tape around her knees and sitting on the court smacking her legs. She lost the third set 6-0.

It was a completely different story against Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals Tuesday. Zvonareva remained calm and collected despite losing the first set and getting broken when she served for the second set. Even when trying to close out the match in the third set, the Russian did not flinch.

Following her practice of keeping a towel over her head at changeovers, she was even unaware of the major upset taking place on Court 1 next door, oblivious that the winner of her match would have a huge opportunity to reach the Wimbledon final because she would be facing Pironkova rather than Venus in the semifinals.

"I was just trying to play one point at a time. I was not looking around," said Zvonareva, who is in the last four of a Grand Slam for the second time in her career. "In my game, I think I'm capable to do a lot of different things. For me, it's very important that my head is relaxed because then I know what I want to do in the next point.

"And if you see all the things around, noticing all the scores, it just takes your concentration a little bit away, and then maybe you will make a wrong decision on the court."

It's all the more impressive because Zvonareva is currently without a coach, having released Sam Sumyk last year. Sumyk began coaching Azarenka at the beginning of this season, and Zvonareva began a three-month stint with Azarenka's former coach, Antonio Van Grichen. That led to a curious dynamic when the two players met in the quarterfinals of Dubai in February.

Zvonareva, who is also working on a degree in international economic relations, cannot put her finger on exactly how she has managed (for the most part) to put a lid on her volcanic temper. "I think it comes with experience," she said. "You grow up. You're more mature. You know you've been in different situations, and you know how to manage them better.

"You know that it is important just to forget what was before and try to concentrate on the next point. I think right now I have learned a lot from the past, and I can do it much better now."

With such a golden opportunity in front of them, all the players left in the draw will face some nerves going forward. But if history is any guide, no one else's battle will make for as interesting viewing as Zvonareva's.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.