Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova came into this year’s US Open having not played a professional match in over three years. The Bulgarian, who has not played since Wimbledon 2017 due to injuries and a pregnancy break, made a truly impressive comeback to tennis with no warmup, yet she had no trouble easily dismissing her first three opponents in straight sets, including seeded players Garbine Muguruza and Donna Vekic. She failed to serve our her fourth-round match against Alize Cornet in the second set, and lost that set in a tiebreak. Still, she was never under real threat in the third and final set.
This brought Tsvetana Pironkova––known a decade ago for being Venus Williams’ kryptonite in Grand Slam events, particularly Wimbledon–to a matchup with Serena Williams for a spot in the US Open quarterfinals. Before this year, Pironkova had only advanced past the second round of the US Open once–a fourth-round run in 2012. Pironkova has reached three other Major quarterfinals in her career (including one semifinal): the 2016 French Open, and Wimbledon in 2010 and 2011 (defeating Venus Williams in both those Wimbledon runs). Every one of those runs included some big upsets, so facing Serena Williams in this year’s US Open wouldn’t be an entirely new experience, but would still be something important. Coming into this match, Pironkova was 0-4 against Serena in her career.
Tsvetana Pironkova vs Serena Williams
Though Williams was rightly favourite ahead of the match it didn’t take long to realise that Pironkova was in no mood to go meekly, despite the incredible run she has already had within the bubble. Williams had no look in on the Bulgarian’s serve in the whole of the opening set. Meanwhile, Pironkova was able to use her variety to give Williams lots of different looks in a rally. That was enough for the great American to lose her patience and lose her serve in the fifth game.
Pironkova didn’t flinch in serving out the opening set and when that was backed up by an immediate break in the second set, Williams knew that yet another chance of winning Grand Slam #24 was again slipping away.
Second Set Resurgence from Williams
Great praise is therefore deserved for Williams as she managed to take some deep breaths and compose herself. The power seemed to turn up to 11 and the accuracy improved enough to find some chinks in the Bulgarian’s armour. The immediate break-back was achieved at 1-1 in the second set and once more the battle was joined for the set.
Williams began to bring out all of the tricks from her near two and a half decades of top-level tennis to combat this confident and skilful foe. A left-handed return in the eighth game of the second set gave her breakpoints and the all-important break was sealed with an absolutely incredible 23-shot rally. The rally covered all corners of the court at high octane and those that continue to doubt the physicality of the veteran will have been left slack-jawed at the winner that sealed the break.
Williams promptly held to seal the second set. The much increased first serve percentage really helped the American to be more secure on her own serve. This in turn allowed Williams to increase the pressure on Pironkova. Though the Bulgarian didn’t fracture, Williams did break her, twice.
The Relentlessness of Serena Williams
Jennifer Brady was seen watching on over her food at the beginning of the third set, but both women made a meal of the opening game of the decider. A mammoth game saw five deuces before eventually, a Pironkova forehand drifted long. This break put scoreboard pressure on the Bulgarian from the beginning of the most pivotal set of tennis since her return.
By this stage of the match, all of the games seemed to be mentally and physically taxing the two supermoms. Many more deuces followed in the subsequent games as both players wrestled to gain a decisive advantage.
This was earned by Williams in the sixth game with another punishing rally. She was then able to serve out to love in the majestic fashion it deserved.
Back in 1999, Serena Williams was a set down in the quarterfinals to Monica Seles. The then teenager showed great character to come back and beat the nine-time Grand Slam champion. Williams went on to win that tournament for her first Grand Slam title. What a story it would be if she finally won her record-breaking 24th after doing it again in 2020.
Main Photo from Getty