Playing her first professional tennis match in over three years, Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova looked like she had not lost a step. The 32-year-old fast-court specialist rolled to a 6-2, 6-3 win over Russia's Liudmila Samsonova in the first round of the US Open, notching her first win since leaving the tour after 2017 Wimbledon to start a family.
"I'll be honest, I didn't expect that but I'll take it," Pironkova told a small pool of reporters after the win.
"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."
Over her 15-year-career, Pironkova has gained cult-like status among fans, who celebrate her ability to capitalize on any quick, low-bouncing court. She was a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010 and captured her only title at the 2014 Sydney International, reaching a career-high No.31 nearly a decade ago.
Pironkova's title-run in Sydney left an indelible mark. Ranked 107, Pironkova earned her spot in the main draw via qualifying and proceeded to march to the title without losing a set, beating Petra Kvitova in the semifinal and Angelique Kerber in the final.
When Pironkova left the tour three years ago, there was no guarantee she would ever return. But as time passed, Pironkova missed the competition. And when the WTA changed its special rankings protections for returning mothers, the likelihood of a comeback became more of a reality.
"Well [the WTA rule change] is actually one of the reasons I decided to come back because the opportunity is really great," Pironkova said. "I can play 12 tournaments with the ranking I last had when I stopped playing. Two of those tournaments can be Grand Slams, which is a huge opportunity as you can see. Here, because of the coronavirus, that was something in my favor. I got straight to the main draw and that this huge opportunity in my first match coming back. And we also had a little bit more time, because before we had two years to come back but now it's three."
"To be honest I wasn't sure if I ever was going to come back, but at one point, I just started really missing the tour and missing the competition. I didn't want to miss my chance to use my special ranking because I realized that was a huge opportunity for me."
Pironkova was one of nine mothers in the draw at the start of the event, along with Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, Tatjana Maria, Vera Zvonareva, Olga Govortsova, Kateryna Bondarenko, and Patricia Maria Tig.
"It's definitely really nice to see more and more moms every year," Pironkova said. "Once you become a mother you don't magically lose your ability to play. If you want to do it I don't think there's something that can stop you from doing it.
"For me, I wasn't sure if I wanted to come back because at one point I was already very tired. I played more than 15 years on tour non-stop and I had huge injuries that would take me away from the tour for a long period of time. At one point I wanted to take my time and enjoy the experience that I had, being pregnant and having my son. I wanted to experience that to the fullest."
Pironkova stayed busy during her three-year hiatus. While raising her son Alexander, Pironkova also launched an athleisure line, Pironetic. Life was good.
"It was great, I have to say," Pironkova said. "I was feeling pretty comfortable being a full-time mom. Maybe too comfortable. I said, ok, I have to take this challenge and get out of my comfort zone."
"Sometimes a person needs to push themselves. You have to take challenges to keep fresh and develop and push yourself. I'm used to doing that all my life and at one point I was just super happy and comfortable with my kid and everything. I started to just want to push myself and I'm glad I took the challenge."
"When the time came I started practicing again. Unfortunately, right at that time the pandemic happened. So my plans initially were to come back at the end of March, but maybe it's for the best I had a little bit more time to practice more."
"I was really curious what my level is at the moment. I was really curious to see if my preparation was adequate and could yield good results. I'm happy to see I did the rights things. I wanted to see if I still have it."
Pironkova's confidence certainly got a boost the minute she stepped on the courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which players have universally acknowledged as playing fast.
"My first practice was in the far courts and out there it's even faster.," Pironkova said. "I thought oh, this is great. But then the inside, it's a little bit slower but it's still a fast surface.
"It suits me, it suits my game. That was a nice surprise for me. Before the courts were much, much slower."
Looking ahead, Pironkova says she's taking it one tournament at a time as she builds her comeback.
"The plan is to use my special ranking to play certain tournaments, but I'm probably going to take more time to prepare for each tournament," she said. "I'm not going to jump from tournament to tournament as I did before because I realized that I need more time to prepare.
"Now we're playing on hardcourt and pretty soon we'll play on clay court so I need time to make the transition."
Pironkova is in New York without her family, but she hopes to be able to travel with her husband and son on tour once COVID-19 concerns are abated.
"He was watching," Pironkova said. "His dad sent me a video. They were both watching and cheering."