Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the No 34 seed from Russia, has made it into the final of the French Open at the age of 29, having beaten Tamara Zidansek, 7-5 6-3, in the semi-finals on Thursday in what is her 52nd appearance at a Grand Slam.
Definitely it was a bit tougher because you think, 'Okay, I'm ranked higher, whatever'. For both of us, it was the first semi-final. It definitely was a lot of mental game going on there, for sure. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
“Fourteen-year-old me would tell me: ‘What took you so long?'” Pavlyuchenkova quipped with a smile after her win.
At the age of 14 in 2006, Pavlyuchenkova served notice of her considerable potential by winning the girls’ singles at the Australian Open and US Open and taking her to the junior World No 1 ranking before making her professional Grand Slam debut as a wild card at Wimbledon in 2007.
Now she has become the first female player to contest more than 50 major events before reaching a first final.
Pavlyuchenkova had already achieved a first by reaching the semi-finals after falling short in the last eight of a Grand Slam on 6 prior occasions.
The No 31 seed, however, maintained her composure in the biggest match of her career, seeing off Zidansek, the World No 85 from Slovenia in 94 minutes.
“It’s been a long road,” Pavlyuchenkova admitted. “I had my own long special road. Everybody has different ways. I’m just happy I’m in the final. I would love to go further and to get more.
“I’m happy but I am still focused and I feel like I can do better. I am definitely trying to soak this in and enjoy as much as possible this very special moment.”
Pavlyuchenkova has won 12 titles on the WTA Tour a, most recently in Strasbourg in 2018, and reached a career-high ranking of 13 in 2011 but, curiously, she has not produced the consistency required to get past the quarters.
A run to the semi-finals of the Madrid Open gave her a timely confidence boost last month, and she has carried that form on to the clay at Roland Garros, becoming the first Russian woman to contest a major final since the now-retired Maria Sharapova at the 2015 Australian Open.
“I definitely didn’t expect to be in the final,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “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 and mentality’.
“I started working with a sports psychologist. I just wanted to give it a try so I have no regrets after.
“I had a lot of doubts because I could beat top-ten players and make the quarter-finals of a major, but then it wouldn’t happen. It was just up and down in terms of results. It was tough to deal with.
“Those little puzzles were not coming together every time. I guess maybe I had a lot of expectations, as well, that I couldn’t deal with over the years. It’s been a lot of different things.”
It seems all the pieces of the puzzle have now finally come together in Paris.
Unflappable on court, the Russian, who now lives in Nice, defeated No 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-4 2-6 6-0 in the third round, which she followed up with a three-set win over two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka.
After her win over Zidansek, there was no show of any outward celebration, not even a hint of a smile until later when reality slipped in to her weary brain.
Zidansek was the outsider in the unexpected final four, none of whom had ever stood on this stage at a Grans Slam before.
Ranked 85, the 23-year-old had won a tense battle with Spain’s Paula Badosa in the quarters, holding her nerve when it counted.
At the get-go she looked the better composed but Pavlyuchenkova began to make her big strikes count and moved into a 5-3 lead, but the Russian failed to serve out the set and Zidansek scored the break back after pulling off an outrageous backhand overhead winner off the frame that clipped the baseline.
An untimely double-fault from the Slovenian, however, then handed the set over.
Pavlyuchenkova was always ahead in the second, and held it together with the finish line in sight, clinching her first match point when Zidansek drilled a backhand wide.
She took a deep breath before allowing herself a satisfied smile as she tried to take in her achievement.
Pavlyuchenkova had struck a tournament-leading 155 winners coming into the semi-finals, but it was Zidansek who was more determined to get on the front foot with 27 winners to Pavlyuchenkova’s 19.
“Definitely it was a bit tougher because you think, ‘Okay, I’m ranked higher, whatever,'” said Pavlyuchenkova. “For both of us, it was the first semi-final.
“It definitely was a lot of mental game going on there, for sure.”
Complications in closing out the match were to be expected, with Pavlyuchenkova going up a break three times in the second set, only for Zidansek to peg her back twice, the second of which featured two Russian double-faults.
Zidansek was unable to regain any momentum, committing 33 unforced errors to Pavlyuchenkova’s 22, two enabling Pavlyuchenkova to serve for the match and, this time, there was no hesitation as she sealed a long-awaited dream.
“Playing that last game I was serving for [the match], I was totally in my zone, focusing, ‘I’m here right now. I know what I have to do’,” Pavlyuchenkova said.
“At the end of the day, I tried to stay in the match every point,” the Russian added. “I had my tactic, I knew what I had to do.
“So just the discipline. I was trying to follow the discipline simply.”
Pavlyuchenkova now plays Barbora Krejcikova, who earned the chance to become the first French Open women’s singles champion from the Czech Republic since Hana Mandlikova in 1981 by coming through a thrilling battle lasting 3hr 18min against Maria Sakkari from Greece.
The World No 33 saved a match point and then needed 5 of her own to eventually overcome the No 17 seed, 7-5 4-6 9-7.
There was drama in the final game when Krejcikova, 25, thought she had converted her 4th match point after a Sakkari groundstroke was called out but, despite television replays suggesting that the ball was indeed long, the umpire forced the point to be replayed after deeming the ball mark caught the line.
Controversy was avoided, however, when Krejcikova brushed it off and moved on to seal her victory a few minutes later.
“I always wanted to play a match like this when I was younger,” Krejcikova said. “It was such a challenging match.
“We both had our chances and were playing so well. Only one could win. Even if I had lost, I would have been very proud of myself. The most important thing is to fight every time.”