Pain is Pironkova’s gain as she wins first title in Sydney

pironkova wins sydney

Pironkova’s career has turned around.

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.


Kerber goes on the Offense, while Tomic Learns to Focus

Kerber IW 12 MALT3184

Angie is trying to become a risk taker.


FROM THE APIA INTERNATIONAL SYDNEY – Angelique Kerber has been a very good, but not great player since 2011, when she came out of nowhere and reached the US Open semifinals. After that, and a very solid 2012, it appeared that lefthander really did have Grand Slam winning potential. She is naturally strong, is a terrific mover and  is a standout defensive player. She has good but not great serve, but that is not uncommon on the WTA tour. She has world class two-handed backhand that she can slap into the corners.  But her forehand has lacked some oomph, as has her return. Playing standout defense propelled her into the year-end top 5 in 2012, but her lack of improvement in 2013 saw her drop to the No.9 ranking, which is where she is now.

Pro tennis is not all about aggression, but if you look at the WTA’s top three of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, it does require some high octane offense.

That is what Kerber knew she had to bring to the table this year and it was that attitude and style that saw he blitz the powerful teenager Madison Keys 6-4, 6-2 in the Brisbane semis.

“I was working very hard in my off‑season and trying to play more aggressive in my practice sessions,” Kerber said.  “I think right now I try to make it in my matches, so it’s good I have like very good matches also before Melbourne. I’m feeling good, and I try to going for my shots.  That’s also what I improve in my game.  I think that it’s good right now.”

Much of a player’s willingness to go for her shots has to do with confidence, and a willingness to make mistakes and move on. On Thursday in Sydney, Kerber actually attacked Keys’ big serve and let loose with her forehand ,which looked much improved and dangerous. She still needs to put balls back in play, but she has to go for openings.

“ I have [going back to defense] sometimes in my mind, but I try to not thinking about this,” she said.  “I really try to focus then from point to point and not thinking about the past, and just trying to go then for my shots.  Also when I make some mistakes not thinking about this too much.  Going for my shots for the other point.”

Kerber will be the favorite going into the final against the Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who played  an excellent match in upsetting Petra Kvitova, but even if the German goes down, she knows that she has to keep attempting to change her mentality. Not too many players can claim wins over Serena, Sharapova, Aga Radwanska and Li Na, but she can. She also played Azarenka very close they last time they faced off.

That indicates that some day, the 25 year old  will have a legitimate chance to win a major, if she takes her gloves off.

“I think you need to play for sure aggressive to be in the top 5, because it’s not easy to play against them when you’re just a defensive player,” Kerber said. “So I try to mix it a little bit and improve my game like to be more aggressive.”


Men’s story of the day: Tomic focuses

Defending champion Bernard Tomic came into his Sydney quarterfinal with a 1-5 record against his foe, Alex Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian’s one-time Aussie coach, Jack Reader, once attributed that to ‘Bernie not liking how Alex plays.” Both guys are squirrely, unorthodox players who are quite talented, but not known for their large hearts or killer instincts. But this time around, at home in front of a very supportive crowd, the Aussie Tomic stayed patient when he had to, didn’t get caught in Dolgopolov spider web and took big rips at the balls when they were in his wheelhouse. The result was a 6-4 6-3 win by Tomic, who once again playing at home looks very good. He also appears a good deal smarter as he managed to smash the mirror of himself into pieces. That would be “The Dolgo.”

“When I play him now I know what it’s like when players play me,” Tomic said. “It’s very different, because the balls that come to me are very unusual.  I struggle with a lot of his balls. I’m like, What the hell was that?  It’s his tennis, and that’s something I do well.  Obviously he’s a difficult player. I’m happy I won.”

Tomic  appears to have gained a bit more foot speed during the off season, is better balanced than he was last year and is clearly motivated to show his home country fans that he really is better than his world No. 51 ranking. On a cool night in Sydney, he also showed them that he can keep his head in a match that he was quite concerned about.

“I knew I had to stay focused with him, “ Tomic said. “ It’s not so much about playing amazing or that good.  I just needed to stay focused and do what I needed to do against him. Against him you can be winning and feel so uncomfortable, and you might lose in one or two games against, like your rhythm and everything.  So it’s difficult to find that timing against a player like that.”

Tomic could very well be better than his ranking, but outside of his fine Aussie summers, the 21 year old had never been a force on tour except for one strong Wimbledon. But that does not matter this week and won’t in the next two weeks in Melbourne.

He has the tools to win Sydney again — although Juan Martin Del Potro, who bested Radek Stepanek and will face Dmitry Tursunov in the semis — will be the favorite to do so. And if Tomic can defend his title, or even reach the final and play the elite likes of Del Potro tough, then he will be worth a long look at the Aussie Open.

Development of the Day

Juan Martin Del Potro says the Sydney courts are very fast and is hoping that the Ausralian Open won’t be as quick.  “I think the bounce are really low,” he said.  “Looks like a grass court, because very low bounce and very faster bounce, too. It’s not easy to play on the baseline and feel good on the lines, but I’m trying to do the best I can… I’m not training for this kind of conditions.  I been practicing in hard court, regular hard court, and I was expecting different conditions for this tournament. Hopefully for Melbourne the courts and balls are slower to play long rallies, to feel the ball like I want.  If not, I will have a couple days before start to change my mind and try to play the best tennis I can.”

Quote of the Day

The vanquished Petra Kvitova on her Aussie Open prospects: “I think the matches what I played was great, and I have three in my back.  I think it’s really good to have this record coming to Australian Open.  It’s a new week. I just hope that I can bring something good from Perth and from Sydney.”

What to Watch for on Friday

Can the cagey Pironkova finally realize her dream and win her first WTA title?



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