If anyone can take credit for this uplifting development, it is Williams.
Were we to consider Williams’s post-childbirth career through the narrowest of tennis prisms, we might be tempted to call it a failure (she has won only one low-profile tournament, while her winning percentage has dropped from 86 to 78 per cent). But the symbolism of her comeback, the fact that she can still be a top-ten player as a mother in her late 30s, is proving hugely motivational for other women – both within tennis and outside.
Also, from a purely practical perspective, Williams’s high-profile case encouraged the Women’s Tennis Association to beef up their maternity-leave policy. Now, not only can mothers use their pre-pregnancy ranking when they return – a clause that saves them from starting out at spit-and-sawdust tournaments in the back of beyond – but they are also guaranteed to avoid a seed in the first round.
“The special ranking gives you more motivation,” said Pironkova on Saturday, “because you’re not starting from scratch. My first tournament is actually main draw in US Open. That is a huge opportunity.”
To combine parenting with professional tennis must be hugely challenging – particularly in the case of Azarenka, who is a single mother. And yet, when they came into the interview room on Saturday for their Zoom conferences, both Azaranka and Pironkova focused on the positives.
Having defeated 19-year-old Pole Iga Swiatek, Azarenka was initially equivocal about her delicate balancing act, suggesting that “it’s a double-edged sword … it’s up to you how you respond to circumstances”. But then, a moment later, she sounded almost blissed-out. “Even when I was No1, when I was winning grand slams. I was never able to reach such a level of happiness on the court.”
Pironkova offered a similarly upbeat take. “There was a time – maybe for one-and-a-half, two years after I became a mum – where I didn’t really picture coming back to the tour at all. But then I started thinking about tennis more and more. And I was like ‘It’s going to be different this time because tennis is before all a game – an interesting, exciting, and supercool game.’”