Back in the early 1990s, a talented young Danish tennis player named Maiken With Pape was attracting attention the world over as she perfected her game at the idyllic woodland setting of the Arhus 1900 tennis club. As a junior, she broke into the world's top 200 at the end of 1995, before surging into the top 50 of doubles seeds in the following year.

However, Pape could not shake off her love for the football, a fascination that had begun at the tender age of five. Three years ago, she called time on her tennis career to follow her true passion, and since then the Danish star has enjoyed a startling level of success.

Having started out in Denmark's fourth division in 2003, the 28-year-old now plays up front for Brondby IF after a meteoric rise that has seen her emerge as one of the key members of the Danish national squad. Her goal in the 1-0 win over Finland in the deciding European qualifier secured her side's place at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.

"It was an unbelievable feeling to score the goal against Finland that took us to the finals. It's all a bit hard to take in but I'm determined to enjoy the moment. Above all, it was a huge relief because there was so much at stake in the match," said a beaming Pape in an interview with FIFA.com.

Pape's strike was all the more important given the fact that Denmark's chances of qualification had been on a knife-edge for some time. "The games against Finland were even more exciting than I had expected because of the psychological pressure. However, we were by far the better team and created a lot of chances. Our failure to convert cost us in the first game but, luckily for us, we managed to win in the return leg in Viborg," she added. 

Memorable debut
Pape earned admiration from critics on her international debut at the start of the year, when the Danes overcame Switzerland in a narrow 3-2 victory in Bellinzona. With six strikes in eleven appearances, Pape then went on to play a major role in booking her nation's ticket to China.

Pape's fairytale rise to stardom has been as impressive as it has been swift: "When I started off three years ago, I was playing in the Danish fourth division. We only trained twice a week, and I was just happy to be playing football, something I had dreamt of for a long time. I really missed kicking a ball when I was still playing tennis. At first, I had no great ambitions, but that quickly changed when I realised what I was capable of. I quickly noticed that I had improved enormously and was confident that I had the ability to make it all the way to the national side," Pape recalled.

A combination of determination and willpower helped to take the 28-year-old to the very top of the game: "I was quite a bit older than my team-mates, so I knew that I'd have to be very focused if I was to hold my own."

The skills she developed during her years on the tennis court served her well when it came to building her football career. "On the court, I learned that you have to work hard at all times if you want to succeed. I also knew what I had to do to make it on the pitch. I'm sure that I've worked harder than some other players, but I really had to. The experience I gained in tennis has helped me a lot."

The decision to switch sports was not a difficult one. "Tennis is a completely different game to football. You are all by yourself on the court - you win alone and you lose alone. You also have to travel around the world by yourself. Football couldn't be more different. You play as a team and are always together. Even if you have a bad day, you can still win as a team. I think it was this team spirit that I missed." 

European sides with the edge
The focus now moves to next year's finals, where the player says Denmark will be hoping to make a major impact. "Our initial aim is simply to make it through the preliminary round. After that, anything is possible. Just like all the other teams, we'll travel to China with the objective of winning the competition. Our team is stronger than it's ever been. The fact that this will also be the last chance for several of our players to play in a major tournament will act as a further incentive for us to do well."

In Pape's view, mental preparation will play a key role in the run-up to next year's tournament: "You can, of course, improve in all areas of the team. Perhaps the aspect we'll have to focus on is our psychological approach since we're very strong both physically and, above all, technically. However, we have to believe that we're capable of winning big games. Mental strength is likely to be the decisive factor in deciding who goes all the way to the final."

Pape believes that the European sides will have an advantage over their rivals next year due to the long and difficult qualification route they have had to endure: "This may give us an edge over teams which don't have to give 100 percent during qualification. This could be a disadvantage to some sides but we have the experience of focusing on the task at hand from the very start. This is sure to help the European nations."

The player agrees that the profile of women's football in Denmark has been given a significant boost in recent years: "Even I have been aware of this despite the fact that I've only been playing for a few years. Interest in my personal circle and in the media has increased and the trend is an increasingly positive one. Qualifying for the World Cup will also help to promote the popularity of the women's game."

Pape is watching moves to establish a new professional league in the USA with a great deal of interest: "If I were to receive an offer, I'd be happy to make the move to America. The USA have some of the best players in the world and it would be a fantastic experience to end my career on."

For the moment, however, Pape is concentrating on China, where she will be hoping to terrorise opposing defences with her trademark speed and technical ability, as she once did from the baseline of the tennis court.