Victoria Azarenka hadn’t won a match in more than a year before she came to New York.
Tsvetana Pironkova hadn’t played in a tournament since 2017.
Now both are perhaps the unlikeliest players in the fourth round at the US Open.
They have made incredible comebacks, and what makes them even more notable is that both Azarenka, 31, and Pironkova, 32, are finding a way to balance playing tennis with parenting young children during a pandemic.
They are not alone. There were nine mothers in the main draw at the tournament this year. Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva, Tatjana Maria, Kateryna Bondarenko, Patricia Maria Tig and Olga Govortsova have since been eliminated, but Azarenka, Pironkova and Serena Williams, possibly the most famous tennis mother of them all, remain.
Each is vying to become the fourth woman in the Open era to win a major title as a mother, joining Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Clijsters in the history books. Williams, 38, has come close on four occasions since her return from giving birth, with runner-up finishes at Wimbledon and the US Open in both 2018 and 2019.
“I’m so happy that there are so many moms in the event, obviously, because I’m one,” Williams said after her win Saturday. “I just have a totally new respect for moms.”
As a 23-time Grand Slam champion, Williams’ story has been told many times. She won the 2017 Australian Open title while pregnant with daughter Olympia. She defeated her sister, Venus, who later joked that it wasn’t fair because it was “two against one.” Serena then made her return in March 2018, just six months after a complicated childbirth. She advanced to the Wimbledon final soon after and has been trying to tie Court’s record of 24 major titles ever since.
Azarenka’s and Pironkova’s journeys have been less celebrated but equally inspiring.
Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka was one of the top players in the game, having won back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami in 2016, before she stepped away because of her pregnancy. She gave birth to her son, Leo, in December of that year and returned to competition the following June, advancing to the fourth round at Wimbledon in her second tournament back. Following a split with Leo’s father later that summer, she became embroiled in a contentious custody battle that significantly impacted her ability to travel out of the state of California.
Azarenka was forced to withdraw from the 2017 US Open and hasn’t been able to play consistently since then, as she continues to fight in court. Her erratic schedule resulted in lackluster performances, and her level of play suffered greatly. She isn’t allowed to provide many details of the legal proceedings but has said on several occasions that she will write a book about it someday.
Because of the dispute, Azarenka was unable to play the Australian swing of the schedule to start 2020. She has since said that she considered retiring from the sport but decided to give it one last try. She played in an exhibition tournament in June in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky, once the season restarted last month. She lost in the first round.
Then she arrived in New York — with her son and mother in tow — for the two-tournament bubble, and she hasn’t lost since. Azarenka stormed through the Western & Southern Open draw into the final, winning the title following the retirement of Naomi Osaka ahead of the match.
“It’s my first title as a mom,” she said after the tournament. “So that makes it special.”
She hasn’t dropped a set en route to the Round of 16 of the US Open and has strung together dominant performance after dominant performance, including a win over No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the second round. Azarenka will face Karolina Muchova on Monday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Pironkova, a 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist, made her last tour appearance at the All England Club in 2017 before being sidelined for her pregnancy. She gave birth to her son, Alexander, in April 2018 and was finished with tennis — until she wasn’t.
“I guess I just needed to distance myself a little bit for about two years,” she said this week. “Little by little, I started really missing the tour, started watching more tournaments, started to follow the players. I kind of started to make plans in my head, looking at the calendar, which tournament would suit me best.”
Pironkova announced her intention to return to competition on March 11, one day before the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Unranked and having not played an event in more than three years, she was able to use her protected ranking for the US Open and came to New York with few expectations.
Like Azarenka, Pironkova has dismantled her opponents in straight sets and knocked off two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, the No. 10 seed, and Donna Vekic, seeded 18th, along the way. She credits her son for her success.
“Everything changes,” she said of becoming a parent. “Your priorities have nothing to do with what they did before. Nothing is the same, really. Right now, I’m just happy to be playing. Having the opportunity for him to watch me also makes me really happy.
“I don’t know how to really explain it. It’s just great to be playing without that extra pressure that I had on myself before. Before it was, like, almost [a] life-and-death situation for me to win a match. Right now, it’s not really like that. It’s all just enjoyment to be on the court.”
Pironkova is slated to take on Alize Cornet on Monday on ESPN, with a quarterfinal bid on the line. Williams will continue her quest to make history with a match against Maria Sakkari on Arthur Ashe Stadium at noon ET on ESPN.
Although all three of the remaining moms would love to hoist the trophy next weekend on Arthur Ashe Stadium, it seems clear to Azarenka that it’s about much more than winning or losing.
“Identifying myself or other players just as mothers, I think that’s not the only thing that we are,” Azarenka said earlier this week. “I think being a mother [is part of it, but] we are also tennis players. We are also women who have dreams and goals and passions.
“Everybody has their own priority. They have their own list of where they rank being a mother is, but we are not — it’s not just being a mother. Your life doesn’t stop. My life just began when I became a mother. I’ll say that really openly.
“So I think to see the rise of women being able to fulfill their dreams, as well as balancing motherhood, I think they all are heroes. I really, really appreciate all of them. And I hope this continues to go on where women are inspired to do what they love to do, but still being able to go after what they want. Because I think for the kids, and I hope for my son, it’s inspiring that I still want to do what I want to do, and I work really hard for that. I want to be the example to my son.”