Pavlyuchenkova's long road to final

 - Dan Imhoff

Russian denies Zidansek in battle of major semi-final debutantes in Paris

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland-Garros 2021 semi-final©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova accepts that some take the long road to reach their Grand Slam ceiling.

As a former junior world No.1 with 12 tour titles, 37 top-10 victories and quarter-final appearances at all four majors, the 29-year-old had every reason to believe she had hit hers.

That was, of course, until Roland-Garros 2021.

In her 52nd major, after 122 main draw matches, the Russian will play in her maiden Slam final on Saturday.

Her 7-5, 6-3 triumph over fellow first-time semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek on Thursday made her the first Russian to reach a major final since Maria Sharapaova lost to Serena Williams in the Australian Open decider more than six years ago.

“It's been a long road. It's been a lot of ups and downs. It's been a tough one,” the 31st seed said. “I definitely didn't expect this year being in the final. I guess you can't expect those things.

“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, your mentality’. I started working with a sports psychologist, everything. Just, I wanted to give it a try so I have no regrets after.”

Pavlyuchenkova and Zidansek arrived in the last four on the heels of two-and-a-half-hour quarter-final epics. The Slovenian, ranked No.85, had never won a round in Paris before this year and never gone beyond the second round at any major.

Having slipped behind 3-5 in the opening set, the 23-year-old’s disappointment was beginning to show before a moment of outlandish reprieve. With Pavlyuchenkova two points from the set, Zidansek pulled off the most unexpected shanked lob winner.

The hands on hips told of Pavlyuchenkova's disbelief. It was enough to lift the crowd and Zidansek’s spirits as she went on to level.

Ultimately, though, it did not become pivotal as the Russian eked out the opening set in 53 minutes. Pavlyuchenkova was closing on unfamiliar territory and the occasion threatened to weigh on her shoulders, but with the luxury of a double break in hand, she stood her ground.

Tamara Zidansek, Roland-Garros 2021, semi-final © Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Zidansek left nothing to chance. One final backhand ripped wide, however, sealed her fate.

“I've learned that sometimes when I was younger, I was always looking at big players, ‘Wow, they're hitting so good’. Maybe I want to have a shot like that or something,” Zidansek said.

“But I think I showed myself and I've learned that at this stage it really is, I'm going to say, 90 per cent a mental game, just about going out there and believing in yourself, believing in your game. At the end being able to go out there and show your best game.”

After she snapped her 0-6 record from Slam quarter-finals, the shackles were off. Pavlyuchenkova knew she would likely never have a better opportunity than this.

Should she go one further she would become the first Russian since Sharapova seven years ago in Paris to win a major.

That ultimate prize had lingered in her thoughts at every one of her 52 campaigns.

“Like this something I've been thinking about every single time. I think as tennis players, that's the only goal I think we have in the head. That's why we playing tennis,” she said. “That's for us the biggest achievement you can get. That's what you’re playing for… I think about it all the time. Like been thinking about it since I was a junior, since I was a little kid, since I started playing tennis… It's been there in my head forever.

The Russian took only a brief moment to stand still after the final point, sent a look of acknowledgement towards her brother before she promptly jogged to the net.

There would be no feigned celebration, more a subtle energy-conserving nod to the job ahead.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Roland-Garros 2021 semi-final©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT