By Matt Cronin
The Russian women’s tennis factory has by no means ground to a halt, but it’s not producing the excellent players as it did at the start of the last decade.
Its best young player is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who turned 21 last month, and she has had trouble matching the early success of Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina or Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The 2006 world junior No. 1 is still ranked in the top 25 at No. 23, but she is off her career high of No. 13 that she achieved last July. A big hitter with good court sense, she had a very rough start to the year as she admittedly was lacking motivation after finishing 2011 ranked No. 16.
On Wednesday at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, she belted Germany’s Julia Goerges 6-3, 6-0 and will face her junior rival, Caroline Wozniacki, in the third round.
Wozniacki had few bumps in the road in climbing to No. 1, but unlike Russia, Denmark had no rich female history to draw upon so analysts eased up on Wozniacki while she worked her way forward. Pavlyuchenkova, who ruled the junior ranks, was expected by some to become the next Sharapova,
"When I was No.1 in junior at 14 and 15 and when I started to play pros everyone was expecting me to win every match I was playing and it wasn't happening," Pavlyuchenkova said. "There were a lot of bad comments about me. There are some good and bad people and they are going to talk. So I thought it doesn't matter, I have to think about myself and work for the future. On the other hand there were a lot of good players who were in front of me and behind me and you always want to be there with them."
It wasn't just the Russian media that expected her to shine quickly, it was also Pavlyuchenkova herself. She won the 2006 Australian Open Girls title over Wozniacki and 2006 US Open girls crown over Tamira Paszek. She won the Aussie Open girls title again in 2007.
In her first full pro season into 2008 she cracked the top 50 at the age of 17, the same age that Sharapova was when she won 2004 Wimbledon. She reached the semis of Indian Wells in 2009 and two other tour level quarters. In 2010 she won her first two WTA titles at Monterrey and Istanbul and reached the fourth round of the US Open. She was outpacing every other player her age and she expected herself to keep rising. In 2011 she reached the quarters of Roland Garros and the US Open. And then the bottom dropped out of her game
"I wanted everything too fast and I needed to be more patient," she said.
She had a rough end to last season and said she didn't take enough time off to rest. Pavlyuchenkova also felt that she didn't practice the right way, and when she arrived in Australia she wasn't refreshed like many of the other players were. Instead, she was burned out. She entered 2012 Roland Garros with a 5-14 record in 2012 and hadn’t won consecutive matches yet in the season. She did so in Paris, and then in Eastbourne, again in Bastad and two weeks ago in Washington, she reached the final.
"Australia wasn't so bad, but I kept feeling felt worse and worse, I had less desire and energy," she said. "I was thinking of stopping, but I wanted to find a way during the matches by fighting and winning them and then I would feel better. I don't feel my tennis was better last year than this year, even though I was losing and losing, but the fighting spirit and confidence, I lost it a bit. I was too exhausted. I wasn't really enjoying myself on court."
Her frequent coaching changes didn't help either. Last year she hired Spaniard Carlos Cuadrado in July and he lasted through early October. Then she asked her brother Aleksander to coach her, but that only lasted until Indian Wells, although they still have a good relationship. Now she is using Adidas coaches Sven Groeneveld and Darren Cahill.
"I have to feel good with person on and off court because we spend so much time together," she said. "With my brother we can very honest with each other, which can be not good sometimes. We get very emotional on court. I’m a very emotional person so sometimes it easier for me to work with someone else. My dad taught me and my brother since I was little so I have to thank to family for everything, but to go further it's a little tougher on the family relations."
It was in Washington two weeks ago where Pavlyuchenkova felt she had recharged her batteries, knocking off Vania King – who had beaten her three times in a row - in the semis.
She suffered heat illness in the final and went down quickly, but now feels like she has regained her focus. Pavlyuchenkova says that she’s not satisfied where she is overall, but is pleased that things seems to be looking up, rather than continuing to spiral, where all "of a sudden you start losing and you are out of top 100," she said. "Sometimes it’s good to have this type of year so you can appreciate your wins more."
She’ll have a stern test against Wozniacki in the third round, who appears to be picking up her level again and is an excellent hard court player. She is about a year young than the Dane and No. 5 Petra Kvitova, and two years younger than No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska.
When she is fit and smacking balls into the corner she looks very close to their level. But she still has to show it – and stay motivated.
"My ability is there," she said. "I don't want to consider myself lower than them, but I can’t say I’m better than them because there’s the rankings and they say who is a little better and who’s not. But they are a little older and went to the top-top faster than me. Maybe for me it takes little more time. I can be there as well, but I have to work harder."