At the age of 28, Natalija Stevanovic had already broken new ground by qualifying for Wimbledon to reach her first ever Grand Slam main draw. Then the No.225-ranked Serb went one better, taking out former finalist and No.18 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-3 for the first Top 20 win of her career.
Those who had been keeping an eye on 's-Hertogenbosch three weeks previously might have been served advance notice of what Stevanovic could do. In her first match against a Top 20 player, she held five set points on former No.1 Victoria Azarenka before losing 7-6(5), 6-3 in the first round. Her slice proved particularly effective at disrupting Azarenka's game.
That experience buoyed Stevanovic ahead of Wimbledon. After finally getting through three Grand Slam qualifying rounds at her 11th attempt, Stevanovic was hungry for a statement win -- and she knew which players she stood a good chance against.
"We were watching the draw online and Pliskova's name came up," Stevanovic said. "My coach [husband Nikola Stevanovic] started saying, 'Us! Us! Us!' -- and my name popped up!
"There are players you want to play against, because you have a game for them. There are other players who might be lower-ranked, but you don't have a game for them. The plan was to use my slices to make her get down very low, and take my chances on the short balls to attack."
After a career-best win, she sat down with wtatennis.com to discuss her long journey to this point, and how she transformed from a player who avoided grass to one who thrives on it.
1. Her slice is her signature shot -- but this wasn't always the case.
Stevanovic's skill with the slice was encapsulated by the way in which she sealed the first set against Pliskova: a casually struck sliced backhand winner down the line that left the Czech flat-footed. She hashtags her practise sessions #slice on Instagram, and she claps her hands with joy when she talks about how much she loves the shot.
"I didn't play like this in juniors," Stevanovic said. "I used it for the first time when I started to work with my coach eight years ago. I was struggling to get the return inside the court. It was mostly mental, but he said, 'Let's try something new. Just chop the ball inside the court to start the point.'
"Since then, every time they were serving to me, I was chopping the slice forehand. Then we saw the slice isn't just a chop, it can make a big difference in the way players are reacting to it. So we started to work on it and improve it."
2. Rafael Nadal inspired her childhood nickname
Stevanovic's 'Nadalija' handle on Instagram is a reference to 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal. She's keen to note that fellow Serb Novak Djokovic inspires her "maximally" these days -- but as a child, she was drawn to Nadal's grit.
"[The nickname] comes from when I was very young, like 7 or 8," she said. "At that time, everyone was calling me Nadalija. Then my first ever email address, my brother-in-law made [it] for me and he put 'Nadalija'.
"I find it reminds me of the time I was young -- a happy childhood playing tennis. So that's why I decided to leave it like that."
3. She had such antipathy to grass that she skipped Wimbledon as a junior
Stevanovic (née Kostic) was the junior No.5 in 2011. But grass was an alien surface to a 16-year-old who had been raised on clay, and she was not especially interested in getting to know it better.
"At the time, I was working with my dad, and we actually decided not to play Wimbledon," she said. "We stayed on clay and played professional tournaments. I actually won one of those tournaments at the same time as Wimbledon -- my first ITF title.
"But I think it was not that good a thing, because feeling this surface is so different."
Seven years later, Stevanovic's epiphany came on grass in Muzaffarnagar, India, where she won her first ITF W25 title in 2018. She thought back to that week as she came through to the Wimbledon main draw this month.
"I felt if I survived grass in India, Wimbledon could be perfect," she said.
4. She has come through serious health issues to make it.
Watching Stevanovic dismantle a former World No.1, many might have wondered how it took her until 2020 to even compete in a Hologic WTA Tour main draw. Stevanovic was diagnosed with a life-threatening cyst on her liver when she was 21.
"I had a big surgery, and half of my stomach is cut," she said. "It was a long recovery for two years, then finding my feet for another two years. Then Covid struck.
"I would say it's only part of last year and this year that I'm playing with full power and consistency."
5. Her husband Nikola has been instrumental in her success
Invaluable to both Stevanovic's recovery and her gradual rise since has been husband and coach Nikola. He gave up his professional water polo career to care for Natalija for six months after her stomach surgery and never went back.
"The first tournaments we played together were meant to be a vacation," Stevanovic said. "Then, out of three tournaments, I won two. I was like, 'Please, can we just try to do something good here?'
"He saw my enthusiasm, he saw my big will and he keeps pushing me up higher."
In 2020, Nikola turned a professional milestone for Stevanovic into a personal one as well. In Hua Hin, the tournament where she played her first WTA main draw, he proposed. The wedding took place a year later.