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Pironkova Surprises Even Herself in Her Return at the U.S. Open

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’s 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 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.”

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