Tsvetana Pironkova blew through a second-set tiebreaker to level her match with a clenched fist, while Maria Sharapova, struggling to time her high ball toss in the breeze, dumped three double faults and flailed a forehand error, dissolving to drop a set to her opponent for the first time.
Signs of stress surrounded the world No. 1 as the third set began, but Sharapova barely blinked. Staring out at the court from beneath her vanilla visor, Sharapova slapped her left hand against her thigh, then turned up the pace on her serve. She rampaged through final set to subdue the tenacious 2010 semifinalist, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 6-0, and power into the third round of Wimbledon.
Despite the third-set shutout, this was a severe test for Sharapova that began on Wednesday with Pironkova playing near-flawless tennis in seizing a 5-2 lead. Sharapova showed her stubborn will in fighting off five set points in the opener, including digging out of a 0-40, triple-set point hole when serving at 5-6, by slamming three biting serves down the middle to earn a hard-fought hold to force a tiebreaker.
In the first point of the tiebreaker, Pironkova had a wide open court, but over-hit her forehand down the line—the first of six forehand errors from the Bulgarian in the breaker. Sharapova surged out to a 6-1 lead, and when Pironkova hooked a forehand into net on the top seed's third set point, she curled into a tumble—a physical response to her collapse and Sharapova's rise.
Sharapova had just broken serve when darkness forced the suspension of play Wednesday evening. Play resumed today with Sharapova holding a 7-6 (3), 3-1 lead, and Pironkova immediately broke back at 30 when the Russian hit her second double fault of the game. Sharapova largely weeded the double faults out of her well-manicured game during her run to the Roland Garros title, but they sprouted up again today. She hit 10 doubles overall, including two in succession to fall behind 1-4 in the second-set tiebreaker. Pironkova pounded a service winner and converted her eighth set point of the match to level the contest when Sharapova's forehand strayed long.
Two years ago at Wimbledon, then-world No. 82 Pironkova shrewdly mixed up the pace of her shots in luring Venus Williams into an implosion of errors to pull off a shocking 6-2, 6-3 conquest of the five-time champion. Pironkova had never surpassed the second round in 18 prior major appearances, but became the first Bulgarian women to reach a major semifinal. Her ability to alter pace and force opponents to hit from awkward spots—she displayed her funky slice forehand at times to set up her flat backhand today—had the 2004 champion lunging at times.
Winning a set from Sharapova is tough; winning a third set from Sharapova is as easy as persuading the All England Club to swap strawberries-and-cream for peanut butter-and-jelly as its signature dish. The four-time Grand Slam champ broke to open the third set and never looked back, winning 12 of 16 points on serve to raise her record to 21-1 in her last 22 three-setters, including a 9-0 mark in 2012.