“She plays like the ones I didn’t like to play so much, like Serena, or Lindsay Davenport.”—Martina Hingis, 2013 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and rookie coach, on her protégé, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
We’re accustomed to coaches pumping up their players, but when that coach was No. 1 at age 16 on the strength of the three Grand Slam singles titles she earned in 1997, it adds a heavy dose of credibility to her comments—even if Hingis does have her work cut out with the spectacularly talented but sometimes mortifyingly inconsistent Pavlyuchenkova.
I’m not sure that the comparison with Serena Williams extends much beyond the fact that both players have a surfeit of power. Pavlyuchenkova is just 21, but she hasn’t approached her career-high singles ranking of No. 13 earned in July 2011. At a comparable age, Williams was already a Grand Slam champ (she won the U.S. Open at a Hingis-like 17 years of age), while Pavlyuchenkova’s best result at a major thus far has been a pair of quarterfinals in 2011.
The Davenport comparison is more convincing, not just because Pavlyuchenkova has a comparable platform. She’s thickly built, and while she’s four inches shorter than Davenport, she’s still well on the tall side at 5’10”. Pavlyuchenkova hits a very clean ball, but seems to have some flaws in her competitive make-up. While Davenport had enormous, consistent success, she often disappointed her most devout fans with surprisingly ineffective performances in Grand Slam events. She was the year-end No. 1 four different times, but won “only” three Grand Slam titles, plus an Olympic gold medal in singles.
Hingis also said that coaching Pavlyuchenkova has been a pleasure because the Russian is “a good listener,” and that too is reminiscent of Davenport, an intelligent, perceptive player and commentator who’s gone on to be a valuable asset in the Tennis Channel commentary booth. Still, given the extent to which Pavlyuchenkova has been spinning her wheels for almost two years now, you have to wonder if she’s ever going to justify the strong praise heaped on her by Hingis.
The upcoming French Open may give us some clues. Pavlyuchenkova began working with Hingis this year, and she’s steadily climbed from No. 36 to her present ranking of No. 19. She’s been in three finals already—Brisbane (where she lost to Serena), Monterrey, and Oeiras—the latter two victories, both on the same red clay she’ll find underfoot at Roland Garros next week.
But be warned—Pavlyuchenkova has taken some losses that are truly head-scratchers, less because of the opponent than how poorly she competed. In Rome last week, she lost to No. 44 Romina Oprandi, 6-2, 6-0. At Kuala Lumpur she fell to No. 197 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-4, 6-1. And in her next event, Indian Wells, she dropped a 7-5, 6-1 decision to No. 69 Johanna Larsson.
After losing to Serena in Brisbane, she told the champ: “I don’t know how to play tennis when I play against you.”
Unfortunately for Pavlyuchenkova, she can make that same statement against other players at unexpected times. Hingis’ main challenge will be ironing out the peaks and valleys, and showing her protégé how to be a competitor as well as a huge talent.