If you were out on Court 17 early on Thursday at the US Open—out there virtually, of course—you might have seen a player hit a shot and use a game style that you dimly recognized from years ago.
The player, a woman with black hair pulled back under a white visor, might not have been instantly recognizable. The shot she hit, a full-swipe slice forehand approach, would have knuckled in the air, bounced unpredictably, and given her opponent fits. The game style she used—an easy, instinctive, flowing, all-court counter-attack—would have looked, as one commentator put it today, “like a walk in the park.” But even if all of this rang a bell, it probably would have conjured up images of Wimbledon grass rather than New York asphalt.
Eventually, the name of this smooth-swinging blast from the past would have come to you: Tsetvana Pironkova. The 32-year-old Bulgarian is a tennis-aficionado’s favorite, one of those players who seemingly has tennis coded into her DNA. With an idiosyncratic arsenal of shots, she owned a game that was as creative as it was effortless. Unfortunately, it may have been a little too much of both, because it was only intermittently successful.
Pironkova’s career, which lasted in its first iteration from 2005 to 2017, was mostly a parade of first- and second-round defeats at the majors. She won just one title, and never cracked the Top 30. Her claim to fleeting fame came at Wimbledon. In 2010, she made a surprise run to the semifinals, and followed that up by reaching the quarters there in 2011. Both runs were memorable while they lasted, as she magically carved up the court with her unusual, thoughtful mix of spins.
Pironkova’s best showing at the US Open came in 2012, when she reached the fourth round. Now, after her 7-5, 6-3 win over Garbiñe Muguruza on Court 17 on Thursday, she’s one win from matching that result. More amazingly, Pironkova’s two victories this week came in her first two WTA matches since she left the tour in 2017.
During those three years, Pironkova had a son, Alexander, and started a clothing line. But as she watched many of her peers continue on tour into their 30s, she felt the pull of competition again. When the WTA eased its rules for returning mothers in 2018, Pironkova saw her chance.
Under the new system, she was able to come back and use the ranking—No. 123—she had when she left the tour three years ago. With all of the withdrawals from this year’s US Open, it was high enough to get her straight into the main draw. There she was joined by eight other moms, including Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, and the woman who beat her in the 2010 Wimbledon semifinals, Vera Zvonareva.
“Everything changes,” she said today of her life as a mother. “Your priorities have nothing to do with what they did before. Nothing is the same really. Right now I’m just happy to be playing. Having the opportunity for [Alexander] to watch me also makes me really happy.”
Pironkova announced her return on March 14, just as the pandemic was shutting the world down. But she says the break gave her a chance to focus purely on her game.
“When I announced I was planning to go back on tour, really the next day almost all the tournaments were starting to get canceled,” she said. “I did have my doubts… but it turned out to be the right decision, I guess, because it actually gave me more time to prepare.”
While Muguruza struggled at times today—she had more success smashing racquets than winners—this wasn’t a case of Pironkova simply cashing in on a terrible performance from a top player. Muguruza led early and served for the first set, before Pironkova got her teeth into the match. First, she caught up to Muguruza’s ground strokes. Then she began to redirect them and take control of the rallies—in her easy way, of course.
“The surface is also really fast,” she said. “… I think I did a good job adjusting.”
By the second set, the old Pironkova style was recognizable again. She whipped her slice forehand into the corner and drew an error. She casually tracked down a drop volley and flicked a forehand past the Spaniard, who was fooled by the last-second change in direction. At the start of rallies, Pironkova absorbed Muguruza’s pace; by the end of them, she was the one dictating. It was all too much for Muguruza, who looked bamboozled by Pironkova’s style, and who grew more infuriated as the match progressed.
“I was just trying to put the ball in the court,” Pironkova said. “I found my rhythm and then I was swinging away.”
Asked about her style of today, Pironkova says she “just tries to combine everything and have a good outcome.” Even with its unusual elements, her game does fit together well. The WTA’s new rules have made its workplace more welcoming for mothers, and we can see the benefits when a player with Pironkova’s unique abilities has a chance to return, and to bring something different and entertaining back to the court. There’s no reason why a game as watchable as hers should have to disappear when she turns 30 and has a child.
“I guess I was mentally prepared,” Pironkova said today. “It’s not something super new. In the same time I was feeling well, I was moving well, I was hitting the ball well. Why not win?”