By Matt Cronin
SYDNEY – It is very rare to find a veteran player who was sitting outside of the top 100 and, at times, who thought about quitting, who can find a way to come though qualifying and mow down an elite WTA field at a Premier level event.
Welcome to Tsvetana Pironkova’s world, one that was filled with angst and now is filled with joy. In one of the most impressive weeks in recent memory, the Bulgarian won the Apia International Sydney on Saturday, besting the favored fifth-seed Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4 in the final. That win followed brilliant performances against two other top 10 players, Sara Errani and Petra Kvitova; the world No. 107 became the first qualifier to win a WTA Premier since Ekaterina Makarova at 2010 Eastbourne.
The 26-year-old needed to win eight matches to grab the crown When she came on court against Kerber, both of her legs hurt. But she would not give in, even though the German is a terrific defensive player who is capable of grinding anyone down.
“In the beginning of the match I was feeling pain all over my legs actually, in my thighs,” Pironkova recalled. “I said, ‘You’re in the final now. You cannot let this affect you that much. Play until you pass out.’”
Pironkova outhit Kerber on the backhand side with low laser shots, served much bigger and more effectively and kept her weaker forehand deep enough so that Kerber was unable to eat her alive. She broke the weak-serving German six times, nailed 32 winners to Kerber’s 23 and did not appear to be nervous while closing the match out, even though it was her first career final. But, in reality, she was riddled with anxiety until she took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand.
“I felt very nervous, but I tried my hardest not to show it,” she said. “I was trying to concentrate so hard that I just see only the ball. I was only watching the ball and I’m like, ‘Okay, just watch the ball and follow every point.’ ”
She won the contest when Kerber pushed a groundstroke wide, fell to her knees and cried a bit in her chair. Her first words in an on-court ceremony were to her parents, her father and coach Kirlei who was on site, as was her mom, Radosevta.
“Mom, Dad, we have trophy!” she said with a big smile on her face.
Her emotion flowed freely, which was not surprising given that there were times in 2013 when she couldn’t win a match.
“When I know what I’ve been through, not only last season but throughout my career, it hasn’t been easy for me,” she said. “This is something that I’ve been waiting for so long and something that I’ve missed so much. Now that I finally have it, it’s all surreal. I still cannot believe it, honestly. My mom and dad are the people that have always been with me. Good or bad, they have always been behind my back and pushing me.”
Pironkova admitted that retirement did cross her mind last season, but she stuck with her sport because she’s been chasing that elusive trophy her whole career
“One bad season. I said to myself, ‘Okay, it sucks, but you have to keep pushing. You have to go forward. Just take all your chances and do what you have to do, and then we’ll see what happens.’ So that’s what I did,” she said.
The Bulgarian added that all of her improvement is due to her newfound mental stability and that she didn’t lose her head once she reached the latter stages of he event. After she upset Errani in the quarters, she knew she had a chance to win it, but she couldn’t afford to daydream, couldn’t think too much ahead. She actually had to wins points, games, sets and matches. And that is what she did. The former Wimbledon semifinalist will head out of Sydney to Melbourne a very happy camper, a top-60 player and a much more dangerous competitor.
“That’s for the first time it came to my mind,” she said of her Errani upset. “ ‘Whoa, you are on a roll here, you play really good, you feel confident, so why not win the tournament.’ But I try to push that thought deeper in my mind and not to think too much about it. Just to take each match on its own. I think that’s the right strategy for me.”
Brains vs Brawn: Tomic vs Del Potro in men’s final
Brains will go up against brawn in the final of the Apia International Sydney on Sunday, with Juan Martin del Potro facing Bernard Tomic. That description is more apt on court as the Argentine is more thoughtful off court than the Australian is, but Tomic tends to be a more of thinking man’s player while Del Potro’s style consists of huge serves and bigger forehands. The two have faced off only once, last year in Washington, which appeared to be a routine win for Del Potro. But Tomic thought he had chances in that contest.
Then 21-year-old Aussie has created a lot of his own opportunities during the week and was mentally strong in his last two matches against two tricky opponents who are as hard to read as he is. Those men would be Alex Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, whom he bested 6-7(4) 7-5 6-3 in the semis. Tomic was drained during the semi, but his fitness level appears to have improved and he was able to out leg the Ukrainian when he needed to in the third set.
But he is going to have a tougher time against Del Potro, who is not going to hesitate at key moments like Stakhovsky did. Del Potro appears to have adjusted to the quick courts now and thumped Dmitry Tursunov 6-4 6-2.
As Tomic said, DelPo may very well have the best forehand on tour these days. While Nadal has the best left-handed one and Federer is right there with him on good days, the Tower of Tandil can rock the shot
“Best forehand I think on tour now.” Tomic said. “Very, very good first serve. Not much you can do when he’s playing good. He can play amazing. I have to stick with him to have a chance I play a little bit differently, so hopefully I can get buzzed up and play my tennis. know what Juan is gonna be doing. Obviously he’s very, very good at what he does. This is why he’s there. I have to do something different. I have to play my game. It’s a final. I’ll go out there, have fun, relax, and I’m going for the win.”
Del Potro praised how intelligent Tomic’s game is, but it’s the Aussie’s first serve and more powerful forehand that has been most impressive this week, not his backhand slice or drop shot. Having a lot of variety can help players win matches as long as they can execute, which Tomic has not been very adept at outside of Australia. But he is playing at home, where he frequently displays top-20 stuff.
“He’s very smart to play,” Del Potro said. “He has everything to be in the higher ranking very soon. He’s a local guy, so he has a little advantage to the rest. He already won this tournament last year, so he must feel confidence to play down the center court.”
Tomic added that it is possible that the Argentine will get nervous and that would give him a chance.