Balancing motherhood and tennis, Pironkova advances at Open

Tsvetana Pironkova took a three-year break from tennis to have a son, missed the sport and now is playing every other day.

At the U.S. Open.

Pironkova beat No. 10-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza 7-5, 6-3 on Thursday to reach the third round. It’s her first tournament since Wimbledon in 2017.

“I’m really, really happy to continue in the tournament,” said Pironkova, a 32-year-old Bulgarian with a long tennis resume. “Coming from a three-year absence on the tour, you always have your doubts. My result make me really happy, because it shows I did the right things preparing for this comeback.”

Pironkova, who will face No. 18-seeded Donna Vekic on Saturday, is playing in her 12th Open but her first since 2016. After Alexander was born in April 2018, she decided she could balance motherhood and a return to tennis.

“Little by little, I started really missing the tour,” she said. “Having the opportunity for him to watch me really makes me happy.

“It’s just great to be playing without that extra pressure I had on myself before. Before, it was almost like life and death situation for me to win a match.”

Pironkova has no ranking because of her layoff, but she was a 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist, and is playing in the U.S. Open for the 12th time.

The win over Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, was Pironkova’s 22nd against a top-20 player.

“It’s not something super new,” Pironkova said. “I was moving well and hitting the ball well. Why not win?”

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SHOT OF THE DAY

Matteo Berrettini produced a memorable shot at the U.S. Open — and a reminder that the rules of tennis don’t say the ball must go over the net. Around the net is just fine, too.

At 5-all in the third set of his third-round victory, the 2019 semifinalist sprinted to his right, far wide of the doubles alley, to get to a ball that seemed completely out of reach and somehow laced a forehand that went between the net post and the chair umpire, curling in for a winner.

In a wonderful display of “act like you’ve been there” vibes, Berrettini simply turned around and strutted away. No wild celebration.

“I’d never tried that. OK, maybe I tried it, but I’d never pulled it off,” Berrettini said later. “It was beautiful.”

There was still a match to win, and soon enough it was over, with the sixth-seeded Italian beating Ugo Humbert 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (6).

LOOKING UP

A year ago, Amanda Anisimova’s father — who also coached her — passed away right before the U.S. Open, so she withdrew from the tournament.

On Thursday, after reaching the third round at Flushing Meadows for the first time, the American teenager looked to the sky and blew a kiss.

Her father, she said, was on her mind as she worked her way out of trouble to put together a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over 16-year-old Katrina Scott, an American wild-card entry.

“I was just thinking about him the whole time,” the 22nd-seeded Anisimova said, “and it was giving me a lot of energy.”

Anisimova won the junior title at Flushing Meadows in 2017 and became the first Grand Slam semifinalist born in the 2000s when she made it to the final four at last year’s French Open. She turned 19 on Monday, and took advantage of her superior experience against Scott.

“It was weird, because I’ve actually never played someone who is younger than me in a Grand Slam,” Anisimova said. “I was pretty nervous.”

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SMASHING DEBUT

American wild card J.J. Wolf has quietly moved into the third round at the U.S. Open, which is a bit of a bummer for him.

“It’s definitely a different feel here,” Wolf said of playing without fans, “especially with all the awesome stadiums the U.S. Open has that New Yorkers and everyone from around the world make rowdy and fun for the players. But it’s still awesome being here.”

Wolf, who is ranked 138th and making his Grand Slam debut, won 26 points at the net to beat Roberto Carballes Baena 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.

The former Ohio State All-American is 21 and sports a shoulder-length mullet a la Andre Agassi, which isn’t a coincidence.

“I always enjoy watching his highlights — such a talented player,” Wolf said. “I wouldn’t say the hair is totally based off of him, but if it’s a tribute to him, I’m fine with that.”

Wolf sparked controversy when he was photographed after his first-round victory making the OK gesture, which is sometimes associated with white supremacy.

“I was pumped,” he said. “It was my first win. I just did an all-good symbol with my hands. I had no knowledge of it meaning anything else. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I have a very diverse friend group. And the comments that were made were disgusting to me.”

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KIDS IN THE HALL

Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic have been rivals since they were kids in Canada and took turns beating each other in tournaments around the globe.

At a major, though, the matchup comes with an added dose of pressure despite the familiarity.

“We both started a little slower,” Pospisil said. “I could feel there were nerves on the court from both sides.”

Pospisil steadied his and beat Raonic 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open for the first time in his career.

Up next, a date with No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut.

Pospisil has been strong since returning from surgery last year on a herniated disk and helped Canada reach the 2019 Davis Cup final. He was stout over the last three sets on Thursday to hold off the 25th-seeded Raonic. Pospisil had failed to get out of the second round in four previous trips to Flushing Meadows. Perhaps the familiarity with his Canadian foe helped him push through for the breakthrough victory.

“To play a Canadian is always tricky,” Pospisil said.

Pospisil and Raonic led a Canadian charge into the second round — Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov of Toronto also won their men’s opening matches to send four men into the second round for the first time since 1959.

Raonic has never advanced past the third round of this tournament. He seemed poised for better things after reaching the final of the Western & Southern Open, the tournament that preceded the U.S. Open at the same site.

“I just never got my game free and flowing in the match,” Raonic said. “I knew he’s got a good level in him and he’s playing well.”

Pospisil hardly seemed distracted by any off-court labor issues. Pospisil and No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic would be the co-presidents of a new group they are trying to set up to represent men’s professional tennis players.

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AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.

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