Just 15 months ago, Tatjana Maria gave birth to her second daughter, Cecilia. Just under a year ago, she resumed her tennis career. Now, the German is a Grand Slam semifinalist after overcoming compatriot Jule Niemeier 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in a 2-hour, 18-minute Wimbledon quarterfinal thriller.
Maria, who trailed by a break in both second and third sets, is contesting her 46th Grand Slam (including qualifying). Prior to this fortnight, she had never passed the third round in any of them. The 34-year-old becomes the eighth player born in 1987 to reach the last four of a major. The first was a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004.
No.103-ranked Maria, who hit her career-high of No.46 in November 2017 after returning from her first maternity leave in 2014, is also the fourth-lowest ranked player to reach the Wimbledon semifinals since 1984. She follows Serena Williams (No.181 in 2018), Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (No.134 in 1999) and Zheng Jie (No.133 in 2008).
Maria served notice of her 2022 form in April, when she captured her second Hologic WTA Tour title in Bogota as a qualifier ranked No.237. She will face either No.3 seed Ons Jabeur or Marie Bouzkova in the semifinals, with a maiden Grand Slam final on the line for all players.
Match management: Three previous seeded opponents -- No.26 Sorana Cirstea, No.5 Maria Sakkari and No.12 Jelena Ostapenko -- had attempted to power through Maria's web of slices, and failed. Niemeier, though able to create effortless pace of her own, opted for a more subtle strategy: taking on Maria at her own finesse game while seeking to take control of the net first.
Consequently, No.1 Court was enraptured by a match of stellar all-court tennis. Between them, Maria and Niemeier approached the net 118 times, with Maria winning 29 of her 45 points there and Niemeier 42 out of 73.
This game plan seemed to tilt the match in Niemeier's favour at first. Bidding to become the first player to reach the Wimbledon semifinals on her main-draw debut since Alexandra Stevenson in 1999, the 22-year-old took advantage of a nervy start by Maria to break immediately, and did not face a break point during the whole first set. Niemeier raised her game even further at the start of the second set, capturing the Maria serve again after a series of winners including a knifed backhand volley, a perfectly judged lob and then a pinpoint backhand pass.
However, double faults would be a Niemeier vulnerability throughout. She committed 11 in total, and the eighth opened the door for Maria to bring up break-back in the very next game. Maria converted it, pulling off an athletic lunge volley winner, and seized control of the set. The hot shots continued throughout: set point involved a defensive Maria lob that landed on the baseline and a Niemeier tweener in response before Maria put away the volley.
The deciding set saw Niemeier clean up her double faults and strike first, breaking for 3-2 after Maria uncharacteristically lost control of both her forehand drive and backhand slice. But leading 4-3, Niemeier's net-rushing flipped from winning strategy to weakness. Two volley errors enabled Maria to level at 4-4.
Maria repeatedly drew gasps from the crowd with her defensive scrambling, seemingly able to get anything that her racquet touched back into play. She came within two points of the match at 5-4 after luring Niemeier into consecutive overhead errors, only for Niemeier to raise her game at net to level at 5-5.
At 5-5, deuce, Maria came out on top of one of the best points of the whole tournament, yanking Niemeier up and down the court with an array of volleys before finding a delicate touch for the winner. She took this momentum into the final game, finding some of her most biting slices to draw errors in response from Niemeier.
Down match point, one final serve-and-volley attempt from the younger player failed to pay off, with her netted result putting Maria through into an unlikely major semifinal.
In Maria's words: "It was a really tough match. It's always tough to play against a German girl. I didn't know her really well. We never even practiced together. So it was something completely new.
"When I went on the court I was starting pretty nervous. I was really nervous. But, thank God, I came down and I find a little bit my game. At the end we had an amazing match. It was amazing how at the end we shaked hands, gave each other a hug, and she was reacting amazing.
Maria on responding to Niemeier's tactics: "I knew a little bit this will happen, so I had this in my mind. But, you know, when you are outside on the court sometimes it's really hard to change your tactics, and I had to change my tactics a little bit.
"I'm happy that I could do it. I mean, even that I was 4-2 down in the third set, I kept going and I kept fighting. That's what I did."
Crèche connection: Cheering for Maria in her last two matches has been a familiar face this Wimbledon -- Jing Robinson, the niece of former WTA player Meilen Tu. The 10-year-old girl was previously sighted cheering Harmony Tan, who is co-coached by Tu's husband Sam Sumyk, all the way to the fourth round.
"That's the friend who plays every morning with Charlotte, actually," Maria said. "They are practicing together every morning. She was supporting Harmony Tan and she's supporting me.
"Yes, she's playing good. She's two years older than my daughter, but they are playing both amazing and they are practicing every day.
"She's great. I mean, she's such a nice girl. I hear her all the time. I mean, she's telling me all the time, 'Allez, Tatjana, allez. You can do this.'
"It's so nice for Charlotte, too, to have friends here to enjoy the time outside of the tennis court. So that's amazing."