Throughout her career, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s talent has never been in doubt. Her ball striking has always been clean as a whistle, her touch supreme since the days she was terrorising far older junior players aged just 14, but her success has always been handcuffed by her mental game.
It has made her breakout tournament in Paris all the more impactful. While the women’s semi-finals produced the rare scenario of four first-time semi-finalists, an instance that only happened 43 years ago at the 1978 Australian Open, not everybody was in the same boat.
Most players have had to break new ground in terms of their performance along with their results, but that cannot really be said of Pavlyuchenkova. Her consecutive wins against Aryna Sabalenka, the third seed, Victoria Azarenka and Elena Rybakina were excellent. But before this tournament she had already defeated 35 top-10 players, won 12 titles and garnered more than $10m in prize money.
What she has done so far this week is consistently replicate her level and frequently manage the important moments far better than before. Against Sabalenka and Rybakina, two of the most destructive ball strikers in the sport, she hit a combined 38 fewer unforced errors than her opponents while constantly trying to expose their movement. Her win against Azarenka, conversely, was her shotmaking at its best as she refused to relinquish control of the baseline.
But her most impressive showing was rather the contest she was most heavily favoured to win – her semi-final victory against Tamara Zidansek. Pavlyuchenkova has been waiting to reach her first semi-final for 10 years since she blew a 6-1, 4-1 lead against Francesca Schiavone in 2011. When she did, she was heavily favoured against, at least historically, a far inferior player. That alone could have been her downfall and she later explained how it was even tougher than other encounters: “You think, ‘OK, I’m ranked higher, whatever.’ […] It definitely was a lot of mental game going on there.”
Over the past two weeks, Pavlyuchenkova has shown she is in some of the physical form of her life and with age she now knows how she needs to carry herself in order to get the most out of herself. Asked earlier in the tournament when she first felt like an adult on the tour over her more than 15 years as a professional, the 29-year-old said she developed that maturity in the past year.
Against Zidansek, she navigated her way to victory by using all of her experience. Pavlyuchenkova banked on her game’s more solid foundations and her ability to play at a high level for a long period of time, maintaining her depth and relentlessly harassing Zidansek’s backhand: “I tried to stay in the match every point. I had my tactic. I knew what I had to do. So, just the discipline. I was trying to follow the discipline simply.”
”Disciplined” is not a word even her most ardent fans would have used to describe her in the past, yet over the past two weeks it has defined her. With the discipline she has demonstrated this week, she will also be favoured against Barbora Krejcikova in the final on Saturday.
While only one spot separates them in the rankings – Pavlyuchenkova is ranked 32nd and Krejcikova 33rd – they will arrive in their first major final under completely different conditions. No player has taken longer to reach their first major final than Pavlyuchenkova in her 52nd event. Conversely, a year ago Krejcikova was outside of the top 100. It was not until Roland Garros last year that she contested a main draw at a major as a direct entrant for the first time. Now they will play for the whole thing.
“I definitely didn’t expect to be in the final this year,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “I guess you can’t expect those things. I was just there working hard, doing everything possible. I just said to myself: ‘You know what? This year let’s do whatever it takes, anything you can do to improve your game, your mentality. Started working with a sports psychologist, everything.’ I just wanted to give it a try so I have no regrets after. That’s it.”