Tsvetana Pironkova: ‘I Wanted To See If I Still Have It’

WASHINGTON, September 4, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

When Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova last played a match, at the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, Serena Williams had not given birth to her daughter, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was just cracking the Top 20 and there was no Coco-mania to talk about. Also, Pironkova’s second-round opponent in the 2020 US Open Thursday was none other than the 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain.

Guess what? Pironkova won in straight sets over Muguruza. She had nothing to lose.

It obviously means a lot to me, especially now,” Pironkova said during her virtual press conference after beating Muguruza, 7-5, 6-3, in one hour and 21 minutes. “But in the same time, I always knew I had it in me because it’s not the first time I win a top player.”

Before she returned, Pironkova had retired, given birth to a son and become an entrepreneur. She seemed content with everything.

“I been on the tour for almost 15 years, and I had many occasions where I played against the best of the best players. I also scored quite a few wins over them,” said Pironkova, now age 32.

“I guess I was mentally prepared. 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?”

Against Muguruza, Pironkova won 93 percent of her first-serve points, which included four aces. She hit just five winners but only committed one unforced error. Pironkova converted three of the 11 break-points chances she had against Muguruza and outpointed her 66-52. The win advanced her to face 18th seed Donna Vekic of Croatia in Saturday’s third round.

During Tuesday’s first round, Pironkova earned a 6-2, 6-3 win over Russia’s Liudmila Samsonova, after which she told the WTA Insider, “Yeah, maybe it’s a little bit surprising. I maybe expected to be more nervous but I was calm the whole time. This is a big success for me. 

“The first match in three years, I was pretty solid. I’m happy with the way I played.”

Pironkova, who was a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010 and won her only WTA title at the 2014 Sydney International while achieving a career-high No. 31, was asked how much she paid attention to the WTA tour during the three years she was away. She said:

“Well, I always followed the news around the tour obviously, especially the Grand Slams. I always watched those. But I really took some time off away from tennis in all aspects. There were times where I didn’t really follow all the tournaments, just a few ones.

“That was kind of I guess I just needed to distance myself a little bit for about two years. Little by little I started really missing the tour, started watching more tournaments, started to follow the players. I kind of started to make plans in my head looking at the calendar, which tournament would suit me best (smiling).

“Yeah, at one point I was like, ‘Okay, let’s take this opportunity, let’s take this chance, just try to do my best.’ The result right now … it really makes me proud and happy.”

As time passed during retirement, Pironkova’s priorities changed – her son Alexander is the love of her life – but her desire to return to competitive tennis grew.

“Everything changes,” she said. “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 him to watch me also makes me really happy.

“I don’t know how to really explain it. It’s just great to be playing without that extra pressure that I had on my myself before. Before it was like almost life-and-death situation for me to win a match. Right now, it’s not really like that. It’s before all just enjoyment to be on the court.”

Tiafoe, Fucsovics win five-set thrillers

Before heavy rain suspended five matches that were either in progress or about to start – except for matches on the covered courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium – there were plenty of exciting outcomes, none greater than a pair of five-set thrillers that were taking place around the same time and on adjacent courts.

First, on Court 11, unseeded American Frances Tiafoe, a native of Hyattsville, Md., went the distance to beat John Millman of Australia, 7-6 (6), 3-6 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. He overcame 73 unforced errors to win a five-set match for just the second time in nine career tries. Extra sweet was it was the 22-year-old Tiafoe’s first win in three meetings against the 31-year-old Millman, who is two years removed from making the US Open quarterfinals.

“I’ve lost some heartbreakers here at the Open,” said Tiafoe. “I didn’t even want to think about that. It was nice to get over the line here in New York.”

Tiafoe is one of three American men to reach the third round, along with Taylor Fritz and J.J. Wolf.

About half an hour after Tiafoe’s match had finished, his third-round opponent became determined when unseeded Marton Fucsovics of Hungary pulled off an upset of 14th seed Grigor Dimitrov, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, on Court 12. It turns out that Fucsovics is both a good friend and often a practice partner with Tiafoe.

“Marton is a good guy,” said Tiafoe. “Hell of a player. I think he’s one of the most underrated guys on the tour, to be honest. He can go crazy. He’s got feel, he’s got a good serve, he’s got movement. He puts guys in uncomfortable situations. I’m going to have to show up. I can’t be having too any dips. I think I’ve got to be able to play at a high level and sustain it.”

Kenin reaches US Open third round for fourth straight year

Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin of the United States started play on Arthur Ashe Stadium Thursday confidently and it translated into victory over 104th-ranked Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez, 6-4, 6-3, in one hour and 22 minutes. The third seed did not face any break points in reaching the US Open third round for the fourth straight year.

“Today was a good win,” said Kenin during her virtual press conference. “I’m really proud of myself, the way I played. She’s a tough player. I knew she’s going to give me different shots, different looks. She played a good match. I just feel like I just played stable today.”

Next, Kenin will face 27th-seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, who took down Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi, 7-6 (8), 6-0.

Auger-Aliassime ends Murray’s run

No. 15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada made quick work of Great Britain’s Andy Murray and wrapped up a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win to move into Saturday’s third round. Next, he will play either 23rd seed Dan Evans of Great Britain or Corentin Moutet of France, whose match was suspended by rain in the third set with Evans leading 4-6, 6-3, 6-5.

Auger-Aliassime played fearless and fantastic tennis against Murray, who won the 2012 US Open title. The 20-year-old fired 24 aces and hit 52 winners. He didn’t face a break point during the two hour and seven-minute match on Arthur Ashe Stadium with the roof closed.

“In the back of your mind you know you’re facing Andy Murray,” said Auger-Aliassime during an on-court interview following his win. “You never know what tricks he might have in the back of his pocket. It’s not easy to close it out. You’re facing a great champion.

“It’s an amazing feeling [to win].”

Around the US Open

Serena Williams move one round closer to a cherished 24th Grand Slam title in a featured match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, ousting 117th-ranked Margarita Gasparyan of Russia, 6-2, 6-4, in one hour and 33 minutes with the roof closed. She advanced to the third round of the US Open for the 20th time in 20 tries – and it was her third career victory over the Russian in three meetings. This time, Williams opened with a service hold at love, thanks to a 104 mile-per-hour ace.

After her latest victory, Williams said during her on-court interview, “I’ve been playing so long that I now play in the modern era, where there’s no crowd, it’s all digital. But there’s something kind of calming about it.”

Next, the six-time US Open champion Williams meets 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens, who reached the third round with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Olga Govortsova of Belarus. It will be their first meeting in five years and Williams has dominated their career series by winning five of six times.

“She’s such a good player,” said Williams of Stephens. “She plays so smooth. She looks like it doesn’t take a lot of energy, then, bam, there’s five winners. She’s obviously won here before, and she’s beaten me before, so she knows how to play well.”

Stephens came into the US Open with six first-round losses this season. “Obviously I haven’t been playing that great,” she said. “Still kind of finding my confidence and my rhythm. Just trying to feel myself on the court a little bit better.”

• At the same time Serena Williams was on court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, next door in Louis Armstrong Stadium men’s No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev was taking care of business in defeating No. 116 Christopher O’Connell of Australia, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to the third round. The two-hour match belonged to the Russian Medvedev.

“I feel that I’m moving well and I am trying to work on it still,” said Medvedev, a 2019 finalist against Rafael Nadal. “Every day I try to practice my movement and tennis shots, but I’m happy with my tennis.”

• No. 6 seed and 2019 semifinalist Matteo Berrettini of Italy fired 17 aces, one of his first serves was clocked at 142 mph – fastest serve of the tournament – and he even hit a winner from outside of the court around the net points en route to his 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (6) victory over France’s Ugo Humbert.

“I’m really happy for my serve,” said Berrettini after his win. “I think I was putting pressure on him, so I thin that’s why, in the end, I won.”

In Saturday’s third round, Berrettini will oppose 30th seed Casper Ruud of Norway, who beat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, by retirement, ahead 6-4, 6-3, 3-2.

• Eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain advanced to the third round with his 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic – the 301st of his career – and next will face Vasek Pospisil, who won the battle of the Canadian hard hitters over 25th seed Milos Raonic, 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Pospisil controlled the net and won 27 of 30 exchanges, while Raonic outslugged his opponent by hitting 29 service aces to 19 for the winner.

“I feel great,” said Pospisil after his win during an on-court interview. It’s the first time in five tries that Pospisil has reached the third round in New York.  “We both started maybe a little bit nervously, as we’ve known each other a long time. But I was reading his serve well today and it’s always a matter of a few points. I’m happy to have bean Milos today. I have struggled with back issues for a few years and I haven’t felt this good since 2014.”

• No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov needed just one hour and 50 minutes to beat fellow Russian Andrey Kuznetsov, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, thanks in part to converting six of 15 break points. Next, Khachanov will face No. 21 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, who fought off France’s Richard Gasquet, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-5.

• Former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, fresh off winning the Western & Southern Open last weekend, avenged a 2019 US Open defeat against fellow Belarusian and fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka to reach the US Open third round for the second time in three years.

Azarenka hit 11 winners against nine unforced errors and was five for five on break-point conversions. He won 77 percent of her first-serve points.

“Confidence comes before you win,” Azarenka said after her seventh straight win during her on-court interview. “If you believe in yourself and your work, you’re already confident and results are a confirmation of your hard work. If you don’t believe in yourself fewer you get results,  you’ll never get them.”

• In men’s doubles, defending champions and No. 1 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah needed just an hour to beat Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, 6-2, 6-3. No. 6 seeds and 2019 French Open champions Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both of Germany, beat 2020 Australian Open finalists Max Purcell and Luke Seville, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-4. Also, 2019 US Open semifinalists Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski took out No. 4 seeds Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek, 6-3, 7-5.

• Women’s doubles is underway in earnest and the No. 1 seeds, Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic needed just 59 minutes to advance over Kaitlyn Christian and Giuliana Olmos, 6-2, 6-2. The No. 3 seeds, Xu Yifan and Nicole Melichar, as well as the No. 4 seeds, Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs, also advanced.

• Other seeds advancing: Men – No. 10 Andrey Rublev, No. 31 Marin Cilic. Women – No. 7 Madison Keys, No. 15 Maria Sakkari, No. 18 Donna Vekic, No. 22 Amanda Anisimova.

• Other seeds upset: Women – No. 9 Johanna Konta.

What they’re saying

Men’s second seed Dominic Thiem celebrated his 27th birthday with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over Sumit Nagal of India to reach the third round. Afterward, the Austrian said of his game: “I think it’s going in the right direction. It’s difficult to say where I stand, I’ve been playing a lot of exhibition matches while we were away, but it’s not the same as here, where it’s more serious. I would like to get back to where I was before we stopped playing.”

Thursday’s results

Friday’s order of play