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Has Pavlyuchenkova paid her dues, or will Kerber bud again Down Under?

Has Pavlyuchenkova paid her dues, or will Kerber bud again Down Under?

With their Australian Open victories Saturday, the German and Russian will now square off for the 15th time—in a series that has seen each win seven previous battles.

MELBOURNE—An 11 a.m. start time on a show court is a mixed blessing. The upside is that the match will begin precisely as scheduled, with no burned fuel waiting for another one to finish. The downside is a sense of relative inferiority: good enough to be assigned a major court, but likely competing in a stadium who’s cavernous, half-empty atmosphere will give the player a sober sense of his or her place on the tennis marquee.

Partially filled seats are a familiar site for 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Once the world’s best juniors, including two title runs here in 2006 and 2007, Pavlyuchenkova has played 48 Slams and only five times cracked the last eight.

This morning, the 28-year-old Russian walked on to Rod Laver Arena to take on No. 2 seed, Karolina Pliskova. Pavlyuchenkova had won but one set in six prior matches versus Pliskova. But today, her flat power game was sharp. Over the course of two hours and 25 minutes, Pavlyuchenkova struck 51 winners and scraped it out, 7-6, 7-6. “Everything was working quite well because I knew what to expect from her,” she said.

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Just west, on Margaret Court Arena, Pavlyuchenkova’s next opponent, 17th-seeded Angelique Kerber, went up against the woman who has never heard of the word “temporize,” Camila Giorgi. This one, too, went long—Kerber requiring two hours and eight minutes to at last tame Giorgi for the fifth time in five meetings, 6-2, 6-7 (3) 6-3.

While numbers don’t always tell the story, they sure did with these two. Kerber was stingy as a banker, with 15 winners, but only 16 unforced errors. Giorgi was a festival: 49 winners, 65 unforced. “You never know with her,” said Kerber. “You have to play until the last point, even you are up or, like, down, you have to play until the last point, because she's there.”

Kerber is the quintessential late bloomer. A first-round loser in ten of her first 15 Slams, she surprised the world four years ago, at the age of 28 beating Serena Williams here in the final – and then made herself a future Hall of Famer with another two Slam victories, winning the US Open that same year and Wimbledon in 2018, where Kerber again upset Serena. Since then, though, in five majors, the left-handed German has only once reached the fourth round. That effort took place here 12 months ago, Kerber bounced out in 55 minutes by Danielle Collins, 6-0, 6-2.

Yet as steady as Kerber can play on her good days, check out her last four year-end rankings: No. 1 at the end of ’16, No. 21 in ’17, No. 2 in ’18 and No. 20 to finish ’19. Said Kerber, “this is a part of my career that I'm always, like, up and down and all the things that I'm going through.”

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Even for a player who has accomplished as much as Kerber, there remains that thin margin between victory and defeat, in the German’s case often revealed through her lackluster serve and baseline passivity. For when you watch Kerber in full flight, she is no mere defender. The Kerber who’s won big is an assertive player, only masquerading as a counterpuncher.

So these two will meet Monday for a quarterfinal berth. You’d expect that Kerber’s mobility and consistency would give her a strong edge over the streaky Pavlyuchenkova. But over the course of 14 meetings, they’ve each won seven.  

Close as the rivalry is, their journeys have been wildly different. Kerber began her career off the radar, rose up the ranks and has since rode the roller-coaster. Pavlyuchenkova was once touted, but has never quite reached the elite. Her opponent in the ‘06 Australian Open junior final was the woman who retired yesterday, Caroline Wozniacki. But the Russian still has the desire to do more, a feeling that her best days remain ahead of her. “I still feel like playing a lot longer,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “Everybody has their own story and their own way, I guess. I still have energy, ambitions, motivations, I’m hungry.”