“It's worth it.”
Those three words uttered by Tsvetana Pironkova represent far more than the emotional ride she had just completed against Alize Cornet in the fourth round of the US Open on Monday. Playing her first tournament since 2017 Wimbledon, Pironkova’s run to the quarterfinals is undoubtedly inspiring, yet somehow feels perfectly on brand. For her career is a testament to Arthur Ashe's point of view that “success is a journey, not a destination.”
Just over a decade ago, Pironkova and her delightful variety, anchored by abnormal employment of a forehand slice to complement a persuasive two-handed backhand, made a big splash. As the world No. 82, Pironkova stunned five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, ranked No. 2 at the time, 6-2, 6-3, to reach the semifinals at the All England Club. She would follow that up by going just 10-22 in tour-level competition over the next 12 months, arriving at SW19 with muted expectations. Instead, Pironkova once again eliminated Williams in the round of 16 and pushed eventual champion Petra Kvitova to three sets in a losing quarterfinal effort.
By the start of 2014, her ranking had fallen outside of the Top 100. Winning three qualifying matches at the WTA Premier event in Sydney, the 107th-ranked Pironkova improbably stormed to the title without dropping a set in the main draw, seeing off three successive Top 10 opponents, Sara Errani, Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. Once more, she struggled to recapture her winning formula, posting consecutive main draw matches just two more times that season.
Two years down the road, Pironkova found herself hovering outside of the Top 100 again. She came into that year’s French Open with an 8-11 career mark at the clay-court major, and had the pressure of defending her best result, a third-round showing, to avoid dipping further in the rankings. How did Pironkova respond? By taking out former Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani in the first round, a rising Sloane Stephens in the third round, and scoring yet another victory over a world No. 2, Agnieszka Radwanska, in the round of 16.
The following season, a shoulder injury began to run its course. Pironkova’s streak of 49 consecutive major appearances was snapped after she missed the 2017 US Open. When she gave birth to son Alexander in the spring of 2018, many wondered if her second-round loss to Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon would be her final match.
Pironkova, who turned pro in 2002, wasn’t initially chomping at the bit to return to the grind of life on tour.
“I just needed to distance myself a little bit for about two years,” she said last week at Flushing Meadows.
Athletes are programmed to test the limits, and for Pironkova, her desire to see how much she could handle eventually kicked in. As Pironkova would share, she started tracking more tournaments and ran through the tour calendar in her head, but the former world No. 31 was ultimately galvanized to make her comeback when a WTA rule change offered greater protections for mothers looking to return to tour. And while the COVID-19 pandemic halted Pironkova’s original plans to start back up in March, the five-month shutdown transpired into an unexpected benefit.
“I worked on a lot, a lot of things. I really worked a lot on my serve. Obviously on my groundstrokes,” said Pironkova.
“Everything in mothering I guess it's helped me. Obviously you become a different person. You don't focus on yourself that much anymore, like your focus is primary on your child. And I guess that's a good thing (smiling). I'm a lot more organized, as well. Mentally more, I have more mental endurance, also.”
Pironkova’s mental fortitude has been display all tournament long at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. She handled the weight of her long-awaited walkout onto court with a comprehensive display versus Ludmilla Samsonova in her opener. She proved her ability to grab the spotlight against big-name players was still intact when she outclassed Garbine Muguruza, who reached January’s Australian Open final, for her first Top 20 win since the day she ousted Radwanska in Paris. She showed that her impressive victory over Muguruza wasn’t a fluke when she backed it up by pulling away from Donna Vekic, a 2019 quarterfinalist.
And on Monday against Cornet, Pironkova demonstrated she could adapt and sustain a Grand Slam champion-caliber level deep into a taxing match. Pironkova was unable to convert a match point on her serve at 5-4 in the second, missing a routine backhand, and after losing the second set tiebreaker, held a minus-12 winners-to-unforced errors ratio.
When she went down an early break in the decider, after playing a tentative forehand slice, Pironkova decided to turn up the heat. Her return suddenly had more weight behind it and her more vulnerable shot, the forehand, came alive to deny the Frenchwoman a successful consolidation. Three backhand winners flew off Pironkova’s racquet in the ensuing game, and three games later, an untouchable cross-court backhand pass put the match on her racquet for a third time.
Two hours and 49 minutes later, Pironkova finally served it out at love to seal a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win. Speaking with Blair Henley afterwards on court, Pironkova would divulge, “Honestly, I didn't feel fresh at all, coming into the third set. I changed my strategy a little bit, I started to be more aggressive. I just tried to play quicker points.
“It's absolutely unreal. I really can't believe it. Especially that I pulled through today, I was so exhausted by the end of the match. I really didn't believe I had it in me but I just kept fighting and fighting and it obviously paid off.”
Her quarterfinal opponent will be fellow mom on tour, Serena Williams, who denied Maria Sakkari a second head-to-head win in Flushing. Pironkova stated it was an honor to get the chance to face the 23-time major champion again, but would first look forward to a well-deserved bath and long massage.
As her interview wrapped up, Pironkova spoke about the challenge of putting herself first at the tournament. Alexander, now 2, is not among those in the New York bubble with the first-time US Open quarterfinalist.
“I haven't seen him in two weeks and it's very tough. It gets tougher every day,” she shared. “But I know he's watching me, I know he's proud of me.
For a few seconds, the weight of being away from her son hit Pironkova. With a “sorry” and raised hand, she composed herself, before making her strongest declaration of the fortnight thus far.
“And... it's worth it.”