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Veteran Pironkova, teen Burel among AO 2021 qualifiers

  • Matt Trollope

Tsvetana Pironkova and Clara Burel represented two distinct groups of players sealing their place in the main draw at Australian Open 2021 after final-round qualifying victories on Wednesday.

Playing in Dubai, Pironkova and Burel were among 16 women booking their seat on a plane to Melbourne, where they will complete two weeks of hotel quarantine before resuming competition in February.

The Australian Open will be staged at Melbourne Park on 8-21 February. 

The first to qualify on Wednesday was No.1 seed Kaja Juvan, a commanding 6-1 6-2 victor over Rebecca Sramkova.

DRAW & RESULTS: AO 2021 women's qualifying

Later, Pironkova, a 33-year-old mother from Bulgaria, was one of several veterans winning her way to Melbourne.

Pironkova is playing in just the third event in her comeback from a three-year tour absence, during which she welcomed son Alexander into the world.

Incredibly, the three tournaments she has played have been majors. And she has had an impact at all of them, reaching the quarterfinals at the US Open and the third round at Roland Garros before qualifying for the Australian Open.

After resuming her career unranked, she is now closing in on the top 100.

“Now that I think about it, I actually played only Grand Slams since I returned, so three in a row,” she laughed after beating Margarita Gasparyan 6-3 7-5. "That's extra motivation for me, because I really love the Grand Slam tournaments and I am so happy to be here.

"I have a lot of things to work on in my game still; it's the first matches for the season. But I'm really happy that I was able to fight through all the matches. Today, also, mentally, was kind of tricky.” 

Mental challenges have also defined Sara Errani’s recent journey, with the Italian admitting to that she now struggles on court with nerves and tension that prevent her from playing as freely as she did during her top-10 days of 2012 and 2013.

Yet the 33-year-old managed to control those nerves on Wednesday, and was another veteran sealing her place in the AO main draw.

“I’m really happy to have won this match and to go to Australia. It’s a dream for me,” said Errani following her 3-6 6-2 6-4 win over wildcard Ana Konjuh.

Also winning on Wednesday were 30-year-old Canadian Rebecca Marino and 29-year-old Valeria Savinykh.

Russia's Savinykh beat 13th seed Ysaline Bonventure 6-4 7-5 while Marino will play in the main draw at a Slam for the first time since Australian Open 2013 after beating Maryna Zanevska in straight sets.

Burel, Osuigwe lead the teens

While those players have all experienced several highs and lows after more than a decade on tour, a group of teenagers, only just beginning that journey, continued their upward trajectory by qualifying on Wednesday.

French 19-year-old Clara Burel was one of the first to progress, notching another impressive result at Slam level.

When tennis resumed after the COVID-19 shut-down in August 2020, Burel was ranked outside the top 500. She has since risen to No.236, after most notably reaching the third round at Roland Garros as a wildcard. 

"Everything I think (is clicking),” laughed the teenager, who is projected to rise to a career-high ranking of No.209 after her AO qualifying result. 

“At the beginning (when we resumed) I wasn't playing that well during the matches, but my practices were really good, and I just kept playing better and better. 

"I'm really excited. I'm just really happy to be able to go to Australia this year. It wasn't easy, but I'm really happy.”

Burel’s form and talent caught the eye of Australian former top-20 star Daria Gavrilova, who narrowly beat the Frenchwoman in September ITF event and tweeted her admiration, before following up with another tweet as Burel was storming through the draw in Paris. 

"I was really disappointed by the loss. And after I saw her tweet and it was just like, OK, I don't know, I felt a little bit better,” Burel said. “And it's just nice to hear that, just really nice."

But Burel isn’t the only teenager attracting attention.

Serb Olga Danilovic, a 19-year-old who burst to prominence with her first WTA title back in 2018, qualified for a Slam main draw for the first time thanks to a three-set win over India’s Ankita Raina. 

The left-hander, who peaked just inside the top 100 during that 2018 season, has since slipped to No.183 but appears to be trending upward again.

Olga Danilovic celebrates a point during her 6-2 3-6 6-1 win over Ankita Raina in the final round of AO 2021 qualifying in Dubai. (Credit: Jorge Ferrari/Tennis Australia)

Fellow 19-year-old Elisabetta Cocciaretto joined Burel and Danilovic in the main draw following a 6-3 6-1 dismissal of Harmony Tan. The in-form Italian has won 16 of 22 matches since pro tennis resumed. 

In the last match of the day, 18-year-old Whitney Osuigwe continued her stunning turnaround in form with a three-set win over Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu.

The American teen had lost 11 of her final 12 matches in 2020, having not tasted not tasted victory since February. And she looked headed for another defeat when she trailed Buzarnescu 6-2 5-2.

Yet buoyed by a new mentality, she rebounded to record an inspiring 2-6 7-6(1) 6-2 triumph.

"I really tried to make that my identity, never giving up. It shows in tennis it's never over until it's actually over, so I kept that in the back of mind the entire time," Osuigwe said.

"Last year was tough, and I think at a point in time I started not enjoying tennis. So a big part of coming into this year was just finding my happiness with tennis again, just leaving 2020 behind me and starting fresh.

"During the pre-season I was on the track every single day, practising twice a day, so I worked really hard to get to where I am right now."

Jones, Sherif make headlines

While no longer teenagers, 20-year-olds Juvan and Francesca Jones were other rising stars qualifying for the year’s first Grand Slam event.

Britain’s Jones has been an incredible story in Dubai, and she added to it with a thumping 6-0 6-1 win over China’s Lu Jia-Jing.

This was just the third Grand Slam qualifying event Jones has ever contested – after Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019 – and the first time she has ever won a match. 

And making her qualifying accomplishment all the more notable is the fact she lives with a rare genetic condition that saw her born with just three toes on her right foot and four on her left – affecting her balance – and four fingers on each hand, impacting her grip. 

The world No.241 admitted she did not believe she was ready to go all the way as she began her campaign in Dubai.

“My fingers had actually split from the cold in the UK and I couldn't hold my racquet too well on my forehand side, and my forehand's my best shot. So I had a wee mental breakdown, to be honest, before the match,” she laughed.

"I think I was probably well prepared physically and mentally. We worked really hard, I tried to trust the work that we did. I got into the Australian Open (qualifying draw) just before Christmas I think, so I had a good few weeks to put myself in the right mindset.

“I just tried to take it match by match and really, as much as possible, ignore the bigger picture, and just focus on the ball.”

Meanwhile, Mayar Sherif continued her stellar form by qualifying for a second consecutive Grand Slam main draw.

The 24-year-old, who made history at Roland Garros in September as the first Egyptian women to ever play in a Grand Slam main draw, overpowered former world No.39 Aleksandra Krunic 6-1 6-2 on Wednesday. 

Sherif has won 29 of her last 35 matches dating back to March.

Other final-round qualifying winners were Greet Minnen, Timea Babos, Mayo Hibi, Chloe Paquet and Liudmila Samsonova