Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has waited a long time to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final and she has finally made it at the French Open after a marathon win over her friend and doubles partner, Elena Rybakina on Tuesday.
When I'm on the court, I'm doing my job and I fight, and I want to kill my opponent every time I play. So that's the difference. I think I have always had the game. I wasn't fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough, where I'm working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recent, and already I feel like it's starting to pay off. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
On Thursday the Russian will play Tamara Zidansek for a place in the Roland Garros final on Saturday.
“I actually have always wanted to be in the semi-finals so much before that, I think, I have achieved it now and I’m sort of neutral reaction,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “Of course, I’m happy, but I feel like I’m doing my work, I’m doing my job.
“There are still matches to go through, still work to be done. So I just look at this like that. Trying to enjoy this moment as much as I can but not giving so much importance as well. Take in the present and then see.”
Ten years after reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final, Pavlyuchenkova, now ranked 32, came from a set down to outlast Rybakina and score a gruelling 6-7(7) 6-2 9-7 victory.
She was an exceptional junior and her breakthrough at Roland Garros as a 19-year-old seemed the first step to greater things, but the Russian has not managed to live up to expectations, falling 5 more times in quarters and not making it further until now, at the age of 29.
With fluctuations in motivation, form and fitness, perseverance has finally paid off for Pavlyuchenkova.
“In big tournaments against big players it was ‘Okay, it’s fine. Next time.’ But this time I felt like, ‘Okay, I was really far’,” admitted the Russian, referring to a wake-up call following an opening round 6-1 6-2 loss to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open.
“Then it makes you think, ‘I’m not there at this level?’ Like, ‘What am I doing?’ So you question yourself a lot.”
Pavlyuchenkova has always possessed the talent, proven by 37 career wins against top-10 players, and she now is in the right head space to contend at the very top.
“When I’m on the court, I’m doing my job and I fight, and I want to kill my opponent every time I play,” she said with a wicked smile.
“So that’s the difference. I think I have always had the game. I wasn’t fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough, where I’m working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recent, and already I feel like it’s starting to pay off.”
As well as enlisting a sports psychologist, Pavlyuchenkova is currently working in a coaching capacity with her brother Aleksandr.
“I have been putting a lot of work in, and I really, really wanted the results so badly, like since the clay-court season started, but I didn’t expect that it would come sort of so quick, because I have already had right away the good run in Madrid and now it’s here,” added the 29-year-old, who made the semi-finals in Madrid.
“My brother, even now we were talking a bit, he teach me how to play smarter, to read the game, which I actually like sometimes don’t read the game well. So that also helps, of course. Just those few things have helped.”
Although Rybakina blasted out of the blocks, striking 11 winners in the first 5 games to lead 4-1 early on, she couldn’t maintain that level, but was still able to sneak out the first set in a tiebreak.
Pavlyuchenkova ran off 6 straight games from 2-2 in the second to lead 2-0 in the third, but then lost 3 straight games to fall a break behind.
With parity immediately restored thanks to the Russian’s 5th break, they went with serve for the next 9 games.
“The way she started, it didn’t surprise me because, obviously, I have watched her matches before, the previous match, and we practiced a lot,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “So I kind of expected it could happen, like she would just serve bombs and play hard, so I’d be, like, no chance there.
“The only thing you can do is hang in there. That’s what I did. I believed in my chances. I believed in my game overall. I know I’m a fighter, so I will fight till the end. That’s what I did.
“The third set, 2-0 up serving, yeah, I slowed down a little bit there. I don’t know if maybe she played a little bit more loose there as well, combination of both. I was rushing a little bit.”
The Kazakh saved some of her best first-strike tennis as she served from behind, including a hold from 0-30 to even up at 7-7 but, in the end, Pavlyuchenkova would not be denied, a forehand winner capped a lengthy rally to give her match point, and the Rybakina’s 6th double-fault of the match handed her the victory after another marathon contest lasting 2 hours 33 minutes.
“I didn’t serve well at all today,” Rybakina reflected in defeat. “My biggest weapon was not going, and because I was thinking a lot about this, I forgot completely the tactics.
“In the end, we showed really good fight, in the last, third set, last few games. Nastia also played really good.
“Overall, it’s really good tournament for me, because it was my goal to reach second week and I did it.”
Before tackling Zidansek, a surprise semi-finalist after her 7-5 4-6 8-6 win over Spain’s Paula Badosa, Pavlyuchenkova will be teaming up with Rybakina for a quarter-final doubles match against Magda Linette & Bernarda Pera on Wednesday.