In an Instagram post on March 11, Tsvetana Pironkova made public her intention of returning to professional tennis for the first time since 2017. Barely a week later, the WTA tour announced its first of many suspensions owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Talk of timing.
But for Pironkova, her comeback had something bigger and better in store. Playing in her first tournament in over three years after becoming a mother in 2018, the Bulgarian has stormed into the quarter-finals of this US Open. Pironkova is one of the three moms in the last-eight of women’s singles in New York, a first in any Grand Slam, along with American Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
But while 23-time major champion Williams and twice Australian Open winner Azarenka have made deep runs in big tournaments multiple times in their long careers, many of them after becoming mothers, the 32-year-old Pironkova is one of the eight first-time quarterfinalists at the US Open. That makes her comeback story all the more noteworthy.
Having reached her career-high ranking of 31 way back in 2010, Pironkova used the protected ranking of 123 (which WTA provides for players returning from a maternity break) to get into the main draw at Flushing Meadows. Before this edition, the only time she had managed to make it to the fourth round of the US Open was in 2012, and her best Slam show was a Wimbledon semi-final appearance 10 years ago. Her solitary WTA title till date remains the 2014 Sydney International triumph.
Tennis also took a backseat during her three-year absence from the game. Apart from raising her son Alexander, Pironkova launched her own athleisure brand. It was only this year that she started preparing for the “unknowns” of returning to the sport as a first-time mother. And yet, she registered straight-sets victories in her first three matches last week including against two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza in the second round.
“Once you become a mother you don’t magically lose your ability to play,” Pironkova was quoted as saying by the WTA website after her opening round win. “If you want to do it I don’t think there’s something that can stop you from doing it.”
Like it hasn’t stopped Williams, Pironkova’s quarter-final opponent, from continuing to pursue her quest for a record-equalling 24th major title. She is on track so far, dishing out some of her trademark superlative play, though she has occasionally dropped a few seats. But even in the near-empty courts this year, she has a vocal supporter from the stands, her three-year old daughter Olympia.
Also often seen watching the action from the stands of the Arthur Ashe Stadium are Azarenka and her four-year old son, Leo. The 31-year-old Azarenka is chasing her first major since 2013, and has both form and self-belief behind her after clinching her first title since 2016 at the Western & Southern Open in the lead-up to the US Open. She believes motherhood has made her a better tennis player.
“You become a different person. You don’t focus on yourself that much anymore—your focus is primarily on your child. And I guess that’s a good thing. I’m a lot more organized as well. Mentally, I have more endurance also. Physically, I know my body better,” she said at a press conference.
From nine mothers in the singles draw when the tournament began, we’re down to three. And with a Williams v Pironkova match-up, we’re guaranteed at least one mom among the last four women standing.