Pavlyuchenkova finally ready to make major impact

  • Matt Trollope

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova admits she was neither mentally or physically ready earlier in her career to achieve what she did at Roland Garros on Tuesday.

The 29-year-old Russian advanced to the semifinals at a major tournament for the first time in her career with a thrilling 6-7(2) 6-2 9-7 win over Elena Rybakina.

Pavluchenkova has contested 52 Grand Slam main draws across a 14-year span, and it was in the 52nd, this fortnight in Paris, that she finally broke through.

“I think I have always had the game. I have always played good. It's just I wasn't fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough,” she revealed. “I'm working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recent, and already I feel like it's starting to pay off.”

It certainly is, given the world No.32’s clay-court form in the past month.

Pavlyuchenkova was also a Madrid semifinalist and has won nine of her past 10 matches on clay – including seven over top-25 opponents.

Aryna Sabalenka terminated her Madrid run for the loss of just five games yet Pavlyuchenkova avenged that defeat in the last 32 in Paris with a resounding 6-4 2-6 6-0 triumph. She returned for a gritty three-set win over two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka, before her quarterfinal classic against Rybakina.

Reminding everyone of her magnificent ball-striking skills, Pavlyuchenkova combined for 111 winners against only 71 errors in those past three matches – an average winner/errors differential of more than +13.

Next facing an opponent – fellow semifinal debutant Tamara Zidansek – ranked more than 50 spots below her, she has an incredible opportunity to continue her French fairytale.

“Of course I'm happy (to reach the semis), but I feel like I'm doing my work,” said Pavlyuchenkova, in another example of the mental gains she has made. “There is still matches to go through, still work to be done. So I just look at this like that. 

“Trying to enjoy this moment as much as I can but not giving so much importance as well right now.”

Great expectations

Such a milestone always seemed likely for a player with Pavlyuchenkova’s talent.

She won three Grand Slam junior titles – including two Australian Opens, the first coming when she was just 14 years old – and attained the world No.1 junior ranking in 2006, before cracking the WTA top 50 two years later.

By age 17 she’d won through to the 2009 Indian Wells semifinals and in 2011, that Grand Slam semifinal looked certain when she led defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-1 4-1 in the Roland Garros quarterfinals – only to fall 1-6 7-5 7-5.

“I will never forget that match,” Pavlyuchenkova recalled. “I was just so in the emotions. I was like everywhere. I was too young. I didn't know how to handle it.”

“I think I have always had the game. I have always played good. It's just I wasn't fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough."
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Still, it was her very first major quarterfinal – there would be plenty more opportunities. She even avenged that defeat to Schiavone just two Slams later at the 2011 US Open to reach a second, where she lost to Serena Williams.

Including that season and the nine that followed, Pavlyuchenkova appeared in a collective six major quarterfinals in singles, and another five in doubles.

Yet she lost them all.

Poetically, exactly a decade on from that maiden quarterfinal at Roland Garros, she has changed the narrative at the same venue. 

Year Event Result Opponent Score
2011 Roland Garros QF L F. Schiavone 1-6 7-5 7-5
2011 US Open QF L S. Williams 7-5 6-1
2016 Wimbledon QF L S. Williams 6-4 6-4
2017 Australian Open QF L V. Williams 6-4 7-6(3)
2019 Australian Open QF L D. Collins 2-6 7-5 6-1`
2020 Australian Open QF L G. Muguruza 7-5 6-3
2021 Roland Garros QF W E. Rybakina 6-7(2) 6-2 9-7

 

“I'm very happy also now. I think I feel a little different. I feel like more mature,” she said.

That maturity has helped lead her to this point. And AO 2021 was perhaps the catalyst for her decision to install the structures and processes she has, following a 6-1 6-2 first-round loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

“I felt like I have no chance,” Pavlyuchenkova said of that match.

“It always sucks to lose, but if you're feeling, Okay, it's very close match and I almost had it … you feel, Okay, it's fine. Next time. But this time I felt like, Okay, I was really far (away). Then it makes you think … I'm not there at this level? Like, what am I doing? So you question yourself a lot.

“I'm working on my mentality. Now recently started to do that, and hopefully it's gonna help me to achieve my goals.”