Pavlyuchenkova winds back the clock

 - Dan Imhoff

Victory over Azarenka sends Russian into first Roland-Garros quarter-final in 10 years

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland-Garros 2021 fourth round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Back-to-back takedowns of big-name Belarusians are just the elixir Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova needs.

Two days after denying red-hot third seed Aryna Sabalenka for the first time, the Russian continued her resurgence at Roland-Garros.

Former world No.1 and 15th seed Victoria Azarenka was the latest to fall, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.

It sealed the 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova’s first major quarter-final in Paris in a decade and went a considerable way to silencing lingering self-doubts as to whether she belonged anymore.

“I think I'm more mature. I hope I show more maturity… smarter tennis, more consistent. I feel quite fit, as well, considering the fact that, like I've said, I'm not the youngest on tour now, but still feeling good,” the 31st seed said.

“I'm also enjoying much more than before. I understand, I know what I have to do, I know what I want to do, trying to work for that. You enjoy that much more. Like you're really in the present, so that's nice.”

Dual major champion Azarenka had tormented Pavlyuchenkova five of the six times they had crossed paths. The Russian’s only win to show since they first squared off 12 years ago was the result of a mid-match retirement.  

After a high-quality 54-minute first set on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Azarenka was in the driver’s seat to secure her first quarter-final at Roland-Garros since her semi-final run eight years ago.

But a crucial double fault coughed up the break of serve at 3-4 in the second set to hand the Russian the chance to serve it out and head for a decider.

Neither was prepared to relinquish their grip, having traded blows at such a high standard, as holding serve proved a battle for both at the beginning of the third.

The heavier hitter of the two, Pavlyuchenkova’s aggression was holding up under pressure.

A huge forehand crosscourt for her 45th winner of the match sealed the double break and she threw her arms up in disbelief at having closed it out after two hours and 11 minutes.

“Funny because when I was a set down, I was losing the first set, I lost it, the beginning of the second I was looking at my shoes, at the clay. I was thinking, I hate clay so much,” she said. “What I'm even doing here in Paris? I was saying this to myself.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland-Garros 2021 fourth round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

“But now I won and I really love this tournament and I love clay. So, you know, it's always like this.”

Azarenka fell short of emerging on top on the scoreboard but there was one notable positive she would take from her trip to Paris.

After a difficult first half of the season she was finally playing again without injuries.

“Definitely I felt that I was a bit less sharp. I didn't take my opportunities when I had them. The momentum shifted, for sure,” Azarenka said.

“There's always some positives. The most positive thing I will say from this week, not the whole season, is that I've been able to play pain-free. That was my goal here.”

Pavlyuchenkova, too, has experienced her share of troubles since the Tour resumed.

She kicked off 2020 in style as she downed top-20 opponents Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber in succession to march into the Australian Open quarter-finals.

It matched her career-best run at a major, but the joy of competing inexplicably waned and her subsequent results began to show it.

Until Madrid last month, she had only once strung together consecutive wins and had not beaten a top 20 opponent since Belinda Bencic pre-pandemic in February last year.

“Even making the quarter-final of Australian Open last year, sometimes like you have a very good run at the tournament, but you still don't feel confident with your game, with yourself. I never could understand why is that happening, why is it like this,” Pavlyuchenkova said.

“Sometimes I was winning matches like a robot. I was just closing my eyes and hitting the ball because I know how to do it… Finally now I start to really work on my game, trying to find this consistent game that I want to play.

“That also gives me a lot of confidence. That, kind of, is something I would like to keep, progressively go into the next matches. So I guess that’s also [the] reason why I was always down on myself, thinking, OK, what's the point really [if I] continue playing like this?”

Three-time champion Serena Williams or 21st seed Elena Rybakina will stand between the Russian and a maiden Grand Slam semi-final.

While the 29-year-old won’t allow herself to be swept up in the emotions of what is to come, a crucial breakthrough is already assured.

That thrill of competing has returned.