On Thursday, Tsvetana Pironkova will play Garbine Muguruza for a third-round berth in the 2020 US Open. The Bulgarian used to be famous for Grand Slam runs out of nowhere, and while she is certainly not the favorite of this clash, Muguruza definitely shouldn’t underestimate her.
With Kim Clijsters and Andrey Kuznetsov recently returning to professional tennis after extremely long periods of time, Tsvetana Pironkova is yet another player to join the list. The Bulgarian last played 38 months ago, going out to Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon 2017. Pironkova was then forced to miss the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury. In early 2018, she announced that she was pregnant and disappeared from the WTA Tour until she signed up for the 2020 US Open.
Peaking at the Majors
Pironkova first gained international recognition at the 2006 Australian Open. She was 19 at the time and came into the event as the World No. 94. The Bulgarian was noticed by the whole tennis world with a titanic 2-6 6-0 9-7 upset of Venus Williams in the opening round. She remained a solid player bouncing between main tour events and the ITF Tour before another major breakthrough came at Wimbledon, four years later.
Ranked No. 82 at the start of the tournament, Pironkova took advantage of a good draw to reach the quarterfinals. Once again, it was Venus Williams on her way. The American, seeded 2nd in London that year, was left speechless as Pironkova played the best match of her life to defeat Williams 6-2 6-3. The Bulgarian lost in three sets to Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals.
Pironkova’s grass-court magic was not over yet. A year later at Wimbledon, she got a chance to take revenge on Zvonareva in the third round. The Bulgarian learned her lesson and bought herself a fourth-round match with another familiar foe – Venus Williams. The American was slowly starting to have nightmares about Pironkova and with another straight-set win over the 5-time Wimbledon champion, the Bulgarian remains one of the not so many players to have a comfortable (3-1) head-to-head lead over Venus. Her run ended in the quarterfinals with a loss to the eventual champion, Petra Kvitova.
A true master of the unexpected
Despite all the Grand Slam glory, Pironkova was still without a WTA Tour final. But in a truly Pironkova-like fashion, she changed that out of nowhere and in stunning fashion. At the 2014 Apia International in Sydney, Pironkova took down three top 10 players in a row (Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber) to take her first, and to this day only, tour-level title.
Pironkova was to have just one more of her famous Grand Slam runs. At the 2016 French Open, ranked out of the top 100, she upset Sara Errani and Sloane Stephens to reach the fourth round. There she met Agnieszka Radwanska, who she trailed 2-6 0-3 before a convenient rain delay allowed her to reset and come back stronger the next day. That turned out to be Pironkova’s last top 10 win before her 38 months hiatus. In the quarterfinals, she lost to Samantha Stosur.
Not as rusty as you might think
Back to professional tennis for the 2020 US Open, Pironkova used a protected ranking to get a spot in the main draw. Awaiting her there was 21-year-old Russian Liudmila Samsonova. Not many could have expected how well was Pironkova going to perform in her first match after such a long break. Not much has changed in the Bulgarian’s game, with her double-handed backhand still the money shot and the often played as a squash shot forehand proving to be tricky and confusing for her opponents.
What can do she do against Garbine Muguruza? Perhaps quite a lot. They have never played each other but this matchup should boil down to how well Tsvetana Pironkova will be able to break up the rhythm off the ground. The Bulgarian’s great tennis acumen will have to be in full use as she just can’t afford going for a hitting battle against Muguruza. But Pironkova is way too smart to try that and will surely utilize her forehand squash shot and all-court play to make the Spaniard uncomfortable. Whatever happens, it should be a fun match to watch as Pironkova’s flamboyant style is bound to keeps things interesting.
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