What You Missed, Day 6: Pavlyuchenkova makes long-awaited breakthrough

What You Missed, Day 6: Pavlyuchenkova makes long-awaited breakthrough

Plus: Zverev and Kyrgios are happy, and inspired, to play for a bigger cause at the Australian Open.

Who has the star of the 2020 Australian Open been so far? Over the last two nights, it hasn’t been a person; it has been a scoring system. In 2019, the tournament installed a match tiebreaker—or super-tiebreaker, or 10-point tiebreaker, take your pick—at 6-6 in deciding sets. But it wasn’t until this week that the format took center stage.

On Friday, Roger Federer came back from a seemingly insurmountable 8-4 deficit to stun John Millman. (If they had played a regular, seven-point tiebreaker, Federer would have lost.) On Saturday it was Nick Kyrgios’s turn to survive another late-night, crowd-pleasing 10-pointer, against Karen Khachanov. The super-tiebreaker is a fittingly grand way to end a Grand Slam match; Wimbledon should consider extending its new tiebreaker at 12-12 to the same length.

Here’s a look at Kyrgios’s late-night theatrics, along with two other newly inspired players in Melbourne.

The 10 Year Breakthrough

Watching Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova grit her teeth and pump her fist and finally fight her way past No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova in two bitterly contested tiebreak sets yesterday, I kept thinking: Has it really been 10 years since the Russian announced her arrival by making the semifinals in Indian Wells? A few clicks on Google confirmed it: As an 18-year-old, Pavs beat No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic and No. 7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska at IW in 2009, before losing to Ana Ivanovic. She was a powerful new force on court, and a breath of fresh comedic air in the interview room.

And then…she never quite broke through again. In 2011, Pavlyuchenkova reached a career-high No. 13, and she has won 12 titles, 423 matches, and nearly $10 million in prize money. But she has never joined the WTA’s elite—or even reached a Grand Slam semifinal. She has always been too erratic, from one shot to the next, one match to the next, one week to the next. And she never seemed to make a concerted campaign—by hiring a star coach or focusing relentlessly on fitness—to rise to the next level.

Has that all changed? Last year Pavlyuchenkova did hire a star coach in Sam Sumyk, who has helped Victoria Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza win major titles and reach No. 1. Since then, Pavlyuchenkova has made finals in Tokyo and Moscow, and is now in the fourth round at the Australian Open. What I liked most about her win over Pliskova was her stubbornness. In the second game of the match, she forced Pliskova to serve for nearly 18 minutes and through a dozen deuces just to get a hold.

The rest of the match was played in that same tooth and nail fashion. Many longtime Pavs watchers may have been waiting for her to give back her lead, or stumble down the stretch. Instead, every time she faltered, she rallied herself with a fist pump. Every time she threw in a double fault, she followed it with a powerful ground stroke.

It’s taken 10 years, but Pavlyuchenkova is getting somewhere.

“I’m happy outside the court, happy on the court, happy in life.”

Does that sound like something Alexander Zverev would say? The same Alexander Zverev who started the season by losing all of his matches and smashing all of his racquets—OK, some survived—at the ATP Cup?

What a difference a week has made for the German, who has reached the second week of a Slam in fairly quiet fashion. He hasn’t dropped a set in three matches, and yesterday he played his best tennis so far in easily dispatching Fernando Verdasco. When Zverev plays best-of-five-set matches, he has a knack for turning what should be routine outings into epic adventures. So far in Melbourne, he hasn’t let his opponents hang around any longer than necessary. This is progress.

Zverev credits his new zen on court to a new zen in his business life. Last August, after serving as his own manager for much of the year, he signed with Roger Federer’s Team 8 agency. Now, he says, he can concentrate full-time on tennis.

“When you have the stress that I had last year with all sorts of things, you’re not going to play your best,” Zverev said. “I have a pretty calm life right now, which is nice for me.”

Zverev did make one bit of news last week, when he announced that he would donate a portion of his winnings to help combat the Australian wild fires; if he wins the tournament, he’ll donate all $4 million. He says that pledge has given him “extra motivation.”

“Now I play for the people who need it.”

Could that be the key for a player who has mostly spun his wheels for the last year, and who has struggled to live up to the sky-high expectations that have always surrounded him? Playing for something outside yourself, something bigger than yourself, can make you feel good, and maybe even make you play better.

“Man, it was crazy. That was insane. I’ve got no words for how I’m feeling right now.”

Could Nick Kyrgios, like Zverev, also be helped by the fact that he’s playing “for those who need it”? Kyrgios was the first tennis player to pledge donations to help fight the wild fires. He’s giving $200 for every ace he hits, and he has inspired John McEnroe to give $1,000 for every set he wins. Kyrgios maxed out in both categories last night, when he threw down 33 aces in a five-set, four-hour, four-tiebreaker win over Karen Khachanov.

Kyrgios has won and lost his share of tumultuous late-nighters in Melbourne. He beat Andreas Seppi in five sets one year, and lost to him in five another year. Kyrgios rides a fine line in front of his own fans, between exuberance and agitation, and he rode it through all five sets against Khachanov. Who would win out, the talented Mr. Kyrgios, or the temperamental Mr. Kyrgios? The guy who can belt a leaping forehand 100 m.p.h., or the guy who can’t stop jawing at his support team? The guy who snatched the second set in a tense tiebreaker, or the one who squandered match points in two other tiebreakers?

Kyrgios built the suspense, showman-style, for as long as he could. He won the first three points of the match tiebreaker, and lost the next four. He went down a potentially fatal mini-break at 7-8, before rifling a life-saving backhand winner to level at 8-8. Then he hung on for dear life, and for a chance to play Rafael Nadal in the fourth round.

Kyrgios has always been ambivalent about playing tennis for himself; sometimes he wants to do it, other times he doesn’t. Judging by his reaction after the Khachanov match, thinking about, and playing for, something bigger seems to make those old conflicts go away. We’ll see how long he can keep them there.