Pavlyuchenkova v Sabalenka: Things we learned

 - Alex Sharp

Russian No.31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova pulled off a big upset as she blasted into week two with victory over in-form No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Combining her standout 2021 form and recent Madrid silverware, Aryna Sabalenka was well-poised for a Grand Slam breakthrough at Roland-Garros.

Not anymore. The third-seeded Belarusian unravelled as world No.32 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova motored through the decider of their third-round encounter on Friday, to pull off a 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 victory and set up a meeting with 15th-seeded Victoria Azarenka in the last 16.

The Russian returned to the second week in Paris for the first time in a decade, whereas Sabalenka is left still seeking a deep run in a major.

Here is what we learned from the action on Court Simonne-Mathieu...

Enjoyment key factor for form

Back in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova locked in her best showing in Paris thus far with a quarter-final ticket.

The 31st seed talks about her game, her past, her motivation with a smile on her face. “Enjoy” is the buzz word, with Pavlyuchenkova relishing the chance to take on an opponent of Sabalenka's calibre.

“Well, 2011. That was a while ago,” said the Russian with a grin. “Right now I'm honestly, I know it's a cliché, I was the first one to laugh at this, players would say, ‘I'm going to go and enjoy out there'. I'm there, like, ‘Yeah, right. Go enjoy, of course, good luck'.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

“Now I actually do that. Even today on the court, apart from having pain in my knee and my leg, I was enjoying. I'm trying to embrace this. I'm enjoying much more now every point the tough matches than I used to before. I guess that's also the reason why I'm still here in the second week. Also, I feel like I'm fitter. Because I'm enjoying playing tennis, I work harder. You work hard, you enjoy the hard work. I think that's the best combination.”

Pavlyuchenkova is enjoying an incredible clay-court campaign, in which she beat four top-25 players in a row en route to the biggest clay semi-final of her career in Madrid last month. She fell to Sabalenka in that semi, but has now exacted her revenge and is raring to go.

Plan B essential for Sabalenka breakthrough

Up in her box, fitness coach Jason Stacy was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, 'Improvise. Adapt. Overcome'.

That message needs to come across a bit stronger for Sabalenka in the Grand Slam gauntlet.

The world No.4 raced 3-0 ahead with devastating rocket-fuel shots, but incrementally overcooked her strokes, with very little variation on bludgeoning the ball.

In particular on return, Sabalenka would complete a full swing on each action, launching balls deep. When it works, it's spectacular. However, the stats highlight the Belarusian needs more variety; a chipped return ever so often, a rally ball to make the opponent play more shots, perhaps.

When returning Pavlyuchenkova’s first serve, Sabalenka only won 18/46 points, with 39 per cent success. Stepping up to attack second serves, the 23-year-old only claimed 14/28 points.

It was erratic, emphasised by a 41-39 winners to unforced errors ratio. 

If the slingshot strokes aren’t working it’s time for Sabalenka to improvise and adapt her game plans to overcome the major obstacle of reaching a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Ambitious Nastia still reaching for improvement

Pavlyuchenkova is currently in her 15th consecutive season playing Grand Slam tennis.

Despite being labelled more as a ‘veteran’ in the locker room, the 29-year-old is still striving for development, and results like toppling the No.3 seed mean a lot.

“First of all, I think it says a lot about my level of play. I'm not the youngest right now. Usually the youngest players, they should feel sort of like fitter and fresher. I'm still here in the second week, still playing good tennis,” maintained Pavlyuchenkova. 

“That shows me that I was playing good tennis 10 years ago and still now, and probably I feel like I play even better and smarter. That's obviously of course a positive thing for me. I feel like I've got a lot more to improve and still have a lot of potential to maybe open up and play even better, try to go forward. I'm here right now and right now is great.”

No fear to take on the very best

Pavlyuchenkova could have wilted following Sabalenka’s explosive start or after the 23-year-old's full-throttle second set resurgence.

However, she stayed positive, played some instinctive tennis to dominate the shorter rallies and defied a left leg complaint (Pavlyuchenkova took an off-court medical timeout after the second set).

The three-set triumph chalked up the No.31 seed’s 37th career win against top-10 players.

Whether she’s the underdog or favourite, Pavlyuchenkova will bring the maximum against anyone between the confines of the court.

“Sometimes I guess it's not easier, but mentally you maybe have less to lose. The better player you are, the more players want to beat you, the more they are fired up against you,” she added, keeping it simple. 

“At this point, I'm not focusing on the rankings any more, not focusing on anything, on the names, nothing. I'm just there. I just take match, this particular match, and I want to win this match. That's it. I have the tactic to play this player. I have a few things how I would like to beat her. That's it basically. I don't really focus on rankings any more.”