• The Star Staff

Pironkova surprises even herself in her return at the US Open

By Ben Rothenberg

Tsvetana Pironkova could see the surprise on the faces of the other players as she entered the locker room at the U.S. Open after being off the tennis tour for more than three years, since Wimbledon in 2017.

With the women’s singles field down to eight players, from 128, the locker room is emptier now. But she is still there, having reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the fourth time in her career.

Pironkova, 32, once thought her playing days were behind her after giving birth to a boy, Alexander, in April 2018.

“I was feeling pretty comfortable being a full-time mom — a little bit too comfortable, maybe,” Pironkova said in an interview. “I said, OK, I have to take this challenge, to get out of my comfort zone.”

Pironkova, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 31 in 2010 and has beaten Venus Williams three times in Grand Slam events, said she missed the physical and mental challenges of tennis.

“Sometimes a person just needs to push herself,” she said.

Though an individual sport like tennis can require a degree of self-centeredness, Pironkova said she felt better about her career in the context of her new family.

“Before I became a mother, I was the baby in the family; my parents, my family, everyone was taking care of me because I am the performer, and I need to feel well to do well,” she said. “I had all the attention. But now it’s different. Now all the attention is with my son, and I kind of find it relieving in some way. I know that whatever happens, I have my family, and that’s the most important thing now.”

Pironkova was one of nine mothers in the women’s singles draw this year. Three of them made it to the quarterfinals, which is a first for a Grand Slam tournament, according to the U.S. Open. Pironkova was to face another mother, Serena Williams, on Wednesday afternoon, and the winner could face yet another, Victoria Azarenka, in the semifinals.

While Williams and Azarenka were considered contenders in New York, Pironkova’s surge was unexpected. Unranked, she was able to enter the main draw using her protected ranking after several players dropped out of the tournament because of the pandemic.

She has justified her spot. After beating Liudmila Samsonova, 6-2, 6-3, in the first round, she beat 10th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, in the second round and 18th-seeded Donna Vekic in the third. In the fourth round, she appeared fatigued after squandering a match point in the second set but hung on for a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win over Alizé Cornet.

“I’m glad I keep winning,” she said. “I cannot hide it: I’m really proud of what I’m doing.”

Pironkova had planned to return to tennis in late March but was delayed by the pandemic. She has benefited from WTA rules that expanded the number of tournaments a returning mother could play with a protected ranking to 12, up from eight, including two Grand Slam tournaments. The window for a return was also expanded to three years, up from two. The rules were introduced at the end of the 2018 season, after Williams’ high-profile return from maternity leave.

“At that time I really didn’t care about that information because I was in a new place in my life,” Pironkova said of the rule changes. “But that was one of the motivations to come back; if I had to start from scratch, I’m not sure I would take that challenge, really. But when you know that you have your old place, it makes all the difference.”

Azarenka, who returned to the tour in 2017, six months after giving birth to a boy, Leo, also advanced to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since becoming a mother, having struggled to refind her game and focus amid a custody battle. She said that she would not have done anything different in her return but that she was happy about the rule changes.

“We are more protected and feel more comfortable because it’s such a life-changing experience that you have,” Azarenka said of motherhood. “To find that balance to be able to go out there ready to play, physically be ready, mentally be ready, I think it’s just a better opportunity for players to take that break if they want to, if that’s their choice.”

The success is slightly double-edged, however. By winning, Pironkova has been away from her son for more than two weeks.

“It’s very hard because up until now it’s the longest I’ve been away from him,” Pironkova said. “I’m used to sleeping with him, to cuddling with him, to waking up with him, to receiving a kiss in the morning. Now all this stuff, I really miss it. But I know it’s for good.”

Pironkova’s husband, Mihail Mirchev, has been sending her videos of Alexander watching her matches.

“I called my husband after the match,” Pironkova said. “He said Alexander watched the whole match. He didn’t want to go to bed until the match was finished. He was cheering, rooting, screaming and he was super happy. But it’s true, I really miss him.”

After her fourth-round win Monday over Cornet, Pironkova became emotional when asked by the on-court interviewer, Blair Henley, about being away from her son, whom she felt uncomfortable bringing to New York because of the pandemic.

“It’s very tough, and it gets tougher every day,” she said, her eyes welling with tears above her masked face. “But I know he’s watching me. I know he’s proud of me. And it’s worth it.”

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