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Never too late: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova satisfies teenage dream with maiden major final in Paris
Once a junior prodigy, the Russian had been winless in six prior Grand Slam quarterfinals, and is now into the biggest final of her career.
Published Jun 10, 2021
WATCH: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova chats with the Tennis Channel desk after reaching her first Grand Slam final.
It was 4:42 P.M. on a Thursday afternoon in Paris. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was 29 years old and playing the 621st WTA match of her career. It was also her first Grand Slam semifinal.
A decade ago at Roland Garros, Pavlyuchenkova had seen a great opportunity slip through her fingers. In the quarterfinals of a major for the first time, she’d led defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 6-1, 4-1, only to end up losing. Five times since, she’d lost in the quarters of a major. Only two days ago had the Russian at last cracked the final four.
Today, versus Tamara Zidansek, Pavlyuchenkova had also been up a set and 4-1. Then, serving at 4-2, nerves betrayed her—two double-faults that handed the break back to Zidansek. But this time, Pavlyuchenkova weathered the counterattack. She broke Zidansek at 30 and served for the match at 5-3. Two sharp backhands and a 110 mph bullet of a serve at 30-15 generated two match points.
As vigorously as Pavlyuchenkova had dictated many a rally in this match, she’d hardly been a solo dictator. Zidansek had also commanded the stage frequently, most notably with powerful forehands, deft drop shots and crisp court coverage. Over the course of this match, Zidansek struck 27 winners, eight more than Pavlyuchenkova. But she also committed 33 unforced errors, compared to 22 for Pavlyuchenkova.
Zidansek’s final error came at 4:42 p.m. in the form of a long backhand, Pavlyuchenkova winning 7-5, 6-3.
The abstract historical achievement was that she’d become the first Russian woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Maria Sharapova had gone that far at the 2015 Australian Open. But the bigger one was far more personal. “Yeah, no, it's definitely for myself,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “There are no people, nobody, I was playing that last game or I was serving for. I was totally in my zone, focusing. I'm here right now. I know what I have to do. Definitely it's totally for myself.”
As you might expect from two people who’d never gone this far at a major, each player’s rich display of skills was intermittently undermined by her awareness of the occasion. While the razor-sharp Pavlyuchenkova backhand is familiar to those who’ve watched her over the last 15 years, the Zidansek forehand is a blossoming laser. But in the first set, serving at 3-4, deuce, Zidansek double-faulted and then sprayed a forehand wide. Surely this was the time experience would take charge.
Then, as can happen in tennis, the ball took a funny bounce. Serving at 5-3, 30-30, Pavlyuchenkova scampered forward to cover a drop shot, Zidansek an easy target at the net. Opting to loft a forehand lob over Zidansek’s backhand side, Pavlyuchenkova then saw a backhand lob volley fly over her head, down the line for a winner. Somewhere, Gaël Monfils applauded. Eventually, Pavlyuchenkova was broken. Two games later, at 5-all, Pavlyuchenkova served at 15-40. But she was able to fight out of that deficit, win the game and stay focused just long enough to earn two set points with Zidansek serving at 5-6, 15-40. Once again, nerves, Zidansek double-faulting. Perhaps that could be expected from someone playing only her 86th WTA main draw match.
Those final two games of the first set flipped the momentum just enough in Pavlyuchenkova’s direction to put her ahead in the second set and survive the near-finish hiccup.
“There are no people, nobody, I was playing that last game or I was serving for. I was totally in my zone, focusing. I'm here right now. I know what I have to do. Definitely it's totally for myself.” Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Yet tempting as it is for a veteran like Pavlyuchenkova to share her love of the process, she admitted today that the desire for a glorious outcome is omnipresent. Asked what the idea of winning a Grand Slam title means to her, Pavlyuchenkova spoke with a candor rarely expressed by experienced pros. “I think about it all the time,” she said. “Like been thinking about it since I was a junior, since I was a little kid, since I started playing tennis. That's what you playing for. That's what you want. It's been there in my head forever.”
The 23-year-old Zidansek also knew it had been a breakthrough fortnight. “I've learned that sometimes when I was younger, I was always looking at big players, Wow, they're hitting so good,” she said. “Maybe I want to have a shot like that or something. But I think I showed myself and I've learned that at this stage it really is, I'm going to say, 90 percent a mental game, just about going out there and believing in yourself, believing in your game. At the end being able to go out there and show your best game.”
Much credit for Zidansek’s thoughtfulness goes to her ongoing study of psychology, as well as the wisdom of Zidansek’s coach of the last eight years, Marjan Cuk. Speaking yesterday, Cuk said, "Tennis is so important, but it's not the only way, you know? We must spend the whole day. How to do it? Just to talk about tennis? You get tense then. So there are many things We are mostly very positive. We enjoy every moment of life. Why not? We are not turtles that we live 220 years. Let's enjoy it, c'mon."
Enjoy? Yes. But consider the duration of Pavlyuchenkova’s journey. Fifteen years ago, half a lifetime ago. Pavlyuchenkova was the world’s best junior, that achievement theoretically a launchpad not merely pointing towards a pro career, but Grand Slam glory. There’d been those half-dozen Slam quarters. There’d been 12 WTA singles titles. There’d been those lifelong ambitions. “14-year-old me would tell me, like, What took you so long?” she said today. “It's tough to really talk about it right now. I don't know. It's been a long road. I had my own long special road. Everybody has different ways.”