As the players walked on, under the roof and artificial lights of the Centre Court, it did not look like a fair contest.
Petra Kvitova is 6ft tall, the No8 seed and a former Wimbledon champion with serious big-match pedigree. Behind her, almost eclipsed, was 5ft 5in Kirsten Flipkens from Belgium, who this time last year was ranked 262 in the world. It was her first grand slam quarter-final in a career that looked as if it had stalled.
But in a tournament defined by shock results, what is one more? Flipkens triumphed 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in just over two hours. Kvitova was suffering from the effects of a virus, and called on the doctor towards the end of the second set. But Flipkens's performance was one of considerable skill and breathtaking composure. In the final set, when everyone expected her to crack, she served relentlessly and moved an ailing Kvitova around the court with a dexterity that was almost sadistic.
"I don't even have tears," said the 27-year-old Flipkens. "I was so calm on the court, because I had nothing to lose. I'm so happy, you can't imagine."
You might not have heard of Flipkens, but she was a brilliant junior player of whom much was expected. Ten years ago she claimed the girls' singles title at Wimbledon and went to the 2003 US Open and won that, too.
But, moving into the senior circuit, she found the expectation overwhelming and it was her fellow Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, a good friend, who dominated.
This time last year, Flipkens was competing not at Wimbledon but at a clay court event in Middleburg, Virginia. Her ranking meant she was not eligible to even enter qualifying at SW19. And she no longer received any financial support from the Belgian tennis federation – she says they dropped her; they claim they gave an offer of reduced support.
Flipkens had also endured a miserable run of injuries. There was wrist surgery in 2010, a debilitating knee problem in 2011 and then, most seriously, in April last year she was diagnosed with blood clots in her calf. She felt sluggish after a flight from Thailand and decided to check it out before heading to a tournament in Tokyo.
"The doctor told me that if I had taken the flight I would come out blue," Flipkens said recently. "You start re-evaluating everything. Winning or losing a tennis match, it doesn't make much difference."
The treatment was successful – though she still takes blood thinners on long-haul flights – but with no money to cover travel costs, her career hung in the balance. At this point, Jean-Pierre Heynderick, a Belgian industrialist and tennis fan, stepped in. Flipkens also started working with Clijsters, a four-times grand slam winner, as a training partner.
In the aftermath of her victory, Flipkens was quick to acknowledge the debt she owed them. "I can count on one hand the number of people who were believing in me," she said. "Kim was one of those people and [Heynderick] was another."
The results were almost immediate for Flipkens and few players have been as consistent over the last year. She has risen more than 230 places in the rankings and is now world No20. At Wimbledon she had glided invisibly through the draw – aided no doubt by the exit of Victoria Azarenka through injury – reaching the quarter-final without dropping a set.
That record went pretty quickly against Kvitova, and the 23-year-old from the Czech Republic looked as if she might have a straightforward afternoon. But that's not really her style. If you think it's emotionally draining to be a British tennis fan sometimes, spare a thought for followers of Kvitova. No one on the women's tour has played more three-set matches than she has. She wins a lot of them but the statistic also tells you that she is deeply mercurial, often prone to lapses in concentration.
As the match progressed, Kvitova became more reckless and – presumably because of her illness – tried to shorten the points with explosive winners. The plan, however, did not work. Flipkens was a wall, returning Kvitova's pummelling ground strokes with a sapping backhand slice that recalled Henin at her best. Kvitova's legs began to look heavy and at 4-4 in the final set she crumpled.
We will leave the final words to Clijsters who, heavily pregnant, was watching the match from her home in the US. "Still drying my eyes :-))," she wrote on Twitter. "So proud of how [Flipkens] handled the big occasion for the first time!"
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image: © marianne bevis