Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) In 2009, a 19-year-old Belarussian by the name of Victoria Azarenka emerged at the French Open as a quarter-finalist.

Her opponent in that match was Dinara Safina who, at the time, was the world number one in women’s tennis. Azarenka won the first set 6-1 before losing in three.

It was the first of four Grand Slam last eight spots she’d go on to reach and as we skip to the present day she has a very good chance of a semi-final place and potentially winning the tournament outright.

Today Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova played in her first Grand Slam quarter-final. She too is 19 and won the first set 6-1 before ultimately losing to Francesca Schiavone who, at this time, is the only player left to have won at Roland Garros.

The similarities between the pair don’t just stop there. Both had marvelous junior careers and they have good records on all surfaces but particularly hard courts where the bulk of their WTA titles have come.

In many ways though Pavlyuchenkova has a great chance of bettering Azarenka let alone matching her.

The Minsk-born player may not have won a Grand Slam title yet but she’s closed the gap considerably this year. She currently sits at number four in the world rankings after winning the Premier Mandatory event in Miami and reaching the final of the same tier tournament in Madrid.

Yet she could have made it there quicker if her body hadn’t let her down at key moments and her head was screwed on during and just after her teenage years.

Pavlyuchenkova possesses the same power as Azarenka and looks more stable. She’s further down the rankings than Azarenka was in 2009 (#14 compared to #9) but a top 10 place is beckoning after her performance this year.

She did choke the match at a set and 4-1 up but it happens to many young talents against the experienced players. Fitness is an area for her to work on as she did look tired, and compared to the rest of the ladies, a little weighty.

Another problem, or it could be deemed a help, is the instability of the WTA tour. The consistent Grand Slam winners are either ageing or have retired and it’s allowed names like Li Na and Vera Zvonareva to enjoy a renaissance whilst opening the door for Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges and other top 10-20 players to break through.

Pavlyuchenkova, like the rest of the aforementioned, will soon be listed as a potential Grand Slam winner. It’s up to the older players in and around the top 10 to hold on to their positions as the likes of Pavlyuchenkova chase them down with Azarenka potentially being the main person to beat out of the rising batch of tennis players from this generation.


Caroline Garcia

The biggest second round story from Roland Garros surrounded a French teenager who almost won the breakthrough game of her career.

Caroline Garcia

Caroline Garcia found herself a set and two breaks up against world number eight and three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova before losing 11 straight games.

The 17-year-old from Lyon looked cagey at the beginning of the match after struggling to hold serve and it looked as if that was how the rest of the afternoon would go.

Then she broke Sharapova and the crowd began to lift, suddenly sensing their homegrown talent had a chance against a title favourite whose prospects had increased after Kim Clijsters’ earlier defeat.

Sharapova’s exit would have been more of a shock seeing as she won in Rome recently and Clijsters had only just come back from injury.

Garcia took the first set 6-3 and although she should be admired for that, her Russian opponent was unbelievably poor at times.

A stat which stood out was Garcia winning 16 points in 4-8 stroke rallies compared to Sharapova’s four. Not surprising when she describes herself on clay as “a cow on ice”.

But for however bad the seventh seed was, Garcia can be given much credit. The power on her is remarkable at such a young age and to even be taking Sharapova to lengthy rallies and bossing her in them is also a feat.

In the second set particularly, her shots, including a stunning return of serve, made her look as if she was the world’s top 10 player up against a wildcard.

It was going great until she was broken at 4-1. Sharapova then held to take it to 4-3 before the turning point.

At 30-30, Garcia hit a shot narrowly close to the baseline which, if in, would have put the momentum back in her favour. The umpire had a look and agreed with the original long call, much to the dismay of the French crowd.

From that moment onwards, Sharapova broke again and never looked back eventually winning 3-6, 6-4, 6-0. A cruel last set for the youngster but along with her second round appearance at the Australian Open this year she’ll climb the rankings and should find herself in the top 150.

It was apt that Garcia announced herself to the world after playing Sharapova, having won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. Like she pointed out in her post-match interview, she’d already been around the tour a while before that win so the fact Garcia is playing more ITF events than junior tournaments is encouraging.

What’s impressive is her nerve. She did look tense before stepping out onto Philippe Chatrier Court but after breaking Sharapova on several occasions she looked composed until the capitulation was triggered. Experience will aid her and once that inevitable big win comes she’ll be reaping the benefits.

Andy Murray was certainly impressed and Garcia will next be seen in the juniors tournament on Monday, so expect more from her progress here next week and certainly beyond that.

Lost Talents

Marin Cilic’s defeat in the first round of the French Open to 33-year-old Spaniard Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo compounded what has been a tough year for the former top 10 player.

The Croatian was seeded 19th but lost in straight sets a man whose only Grand Slam victories came in the 2006 French Open, where he reached the fourth round.

Now world number 20 Cilic is likely to drop further down the rankings when only last year he sat at number nine following an impressive Australian Open semi-final run.

So what has happened to the once lauded young talent and former French Open junior champion? Well 67 unforced errors doesn’t help and certainly aided his downfall against Hidalgo but there are aspects of his game which need improving.

When looking at his only ATP final appearance this year in Marseille compared to his Australian Open quarter-final there are notable differences.

The first is the movement. Some of the shots Robin Soderling produced in Marseille were reachable but Cilic either stood still or gave up trying to make the return.

Another thing is his reading of the game. Against Andy Roddick, Cilic anticipated the ball’s placement and the American’s shot selection much better.

And also he can’t rely solely on his serve. At 6′ 6” it’s a great weapon to have, smashing in aces on your own service game but it’s not enough to win you matches against the top players. Ivo Karlovic and John Isner have yet to learn that lesson as well.

Mentality is also key. I heard American youngster Irina Falconi say after her first round defeat that tennis is “100% physical and 100% mental”.

Cilic has spoke before of feeling nervous before big matches, something I’m sure most players experience, but if it gets to you during the match then you’re more than likely going to crumble.

Marin Čilić on the receiving side

Another first round exit came in the form of Ernests Gulbis whom I’ve written about before. Back then I admit my thoughts on Gulbis’ similar ranking ‘injustice’ were sketchy but after more thorough research I’ve come to realise how important mentality is.

One thing I labelled Gulbis was a “headcase” and I stand by that. His interviews are often light-hearted and clichés are rarities, which is nice and different but some of the things he comes out with raise eyebrows over commitment issues.

Upon publication Gulbis fans hated me for saying that but he’s admitted to not enjoying practice whilst saying he loves being on the court and winning matches.

Unfortunately it’s a symbiotic relationship. If it wasn’t, I could be at Roland Garros.

In one interview Gulbis says he’s happy no matter how he wins. In contrast, women’s number one Caroline Wozniacki has said she’s a perfectionist and works on the things that didn’t please her during victories.

Perhaps that is the difference; I’m not sure. Certainly maturity on the court is something for Gulbis to improve on. One-time racket-smashers Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray have become much better players for it.

Gulbis is a player who intrigues and often confuses me. I don’t know whether to love him for his casual style or hate him for how it affects his tennis.

Him and Cilic are both currently 22 and have many years ahead of them. Although the Croat is ranked higher than the Latvian, they both have top 10 potential. Whether they’ll get there and remain there, depends on how they react to their current slumps.

Dark Horse Del Potro?

After his recent title victory at the Estoril Open, is it worth a punt on Juan Martin del Potro to win at the French?

Well, yes, it’s certainly worth a couple of pounds, dollars or whatever your currency may be but just don’t bet your mortgage on the 22-year-old Argentine.

Rafael Nadal is still far and away the favourite to claim a sixth crown at Roland Garros at just 24-years-old. And should he lose it’s most likely going to be to Novak Djokovic.

Del Potro is a rare breed though, being one of only four men on the tour who have won a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick in 2003.

That scenario was also true with Djokovic before his unbelievable 2011 form brought an Australian Open title, several other ATP wins and advertising deals aplenty.

Djokovic is now considered by some to be the best player in the world right now after two tour final victories over Nadal when he’d always been living in the shadows of the Spaniard and Roger Federer. So can del Potro get there also?

Another Grand Slam is definitely possible. A French Open success this year may be too much for a man still climbing the rankings after being at number 484 last February following a wrist injury.

Now at #32 the 2009 French Open semi-finalist might not have the stamina to go two weeks on clay with the extended best of five set format.

But players must be wary. A straight sets win over the 2009 and 2010 French Open finalist Robin Soderling last week proves the dark horse tag is suitable.

We’ll learn more from del Potro this week in Madrid, especially with a third round match-up with Nadal on the cards.

Del Potro

Elsewhere in the Mutua Madrid Open:

  • After disappearing from the tennis scene for a while Bojana Jovanovski returned to WTA action with a first round 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 win over Greta Arn.
  • Kei Nishikori lost his first round match to Spain’s Pere Riba 2-6, 2-6.
  • Dutch 22-year-old qualifier Thiemo de Bakker saw off world former world number one Juan Carlos Ferrero 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.
  • Doubles specialist Vania King has aided her cause for a top 100 return in the singles rankings after a 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win over Nadia Petrova.
  • Wildcard Arantxa Parra Santonja is enjoying a resurgence in form. The 28-year-old beat Flavia Pennetta and Andrea Petkovic in the first and second round respectively.

Oh Clay!

The end of the Sony Ericsson Open signals the beginning of the clay court season, which could either be disastrous or very productive for tennis players trying to make their name.

Only a select few number of players find the slower surface their specialist area – Rafael Nadal, Robin Soderling, Francesca Schiavone, Svetlana Kutznetsova and Sam Stosur are just some of the exclusive clay club.

Therefore the results could be sporadic. Some younger players will find themselves winning matches against normally sound professionals inside the top 20 but it also works both ways as they won’t enjoy the clay either.

The first WTA clay tournaments take place tomorrow at Charleston, USA in the Family Circle Cup and the Andalucia Tennis Experience in Marbella, Spain. Houston is hosting the US Men’s Clay Court Championship whilst Casablanca features the other ATP 250.

These types of events only benefit younger players as they split the world’s best into two tournaments rather than a larger round of 96, so seeds can range from top 10 players to just inside the top 50.

The next major ATP tournament featuring the big names is the Monte Carlo Masters on April 10th with other highlights including the Madrid Open, Rome’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia and, of course, the French Open at Roland Garros.

The second Grand Slam of the year seems to be getting more and more unpredictable to judge. Since Justine Henin’s first retirement, there have been a host of names in the women’s final of clay’s showpiece tournament.

If the men avoid Rafael Nadal over the next two months they could prosper. It will also be interesting to see if Novak Djokovic can continue his fine run of form through to the grass court season as well.

Seeds could fall, form could alter and new faces could become household names. In short, expect the unexpected.

Rafael Nadal

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

The main draws for the WTA premier events in Charleston and Marbella as well as the ATP 250’s in Houston and Casablanca are available to see in full.

The Curious Case of Ernests Gulbis

Ernests Gulbis

Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis should be in the world’s top 10, if not for his tennis skills then certainly for his crazy antics.

At the age of 22, he’s already been to jail in Sweden after an incident involving a prostitute and on court breaks more rackets than a noise officer.

Novak Djokovic is the only top player with a bit of spunk. He’s become a star via two Grand Slam titles and an increasingly popular internet career thanks partly to some hilarious impressions at the US Open (and Ace of Baseline also recommends his advert for Head).

“Ernie” is even more wilder than the in-form Serb but the potential for even more scenes like the ones from Djokovic are hindered by his poor performances on the big stages.

First round defeats have been next to Gulbis’ name in major tournaments since the 2009 US Open and he has won only one ATP tour title. His record against top 10 players is also appalling.

Yet Gulbis did reach the quarter finals of the French Open three years ago so the talent is there, particularly on clay.

What’s missing is the attitude to make it to the top. Most players who suffer a setback use the same line of trying harder in practice but for Gulbis he’d rather not bother with it.

There’s also a case he may not even care about performing to the crowd but we’ll never know until we see him on a regular basis.

A friend of Marat Safin, the two have drawn comparisons by their casual approach to the sport, somewhat refreshing but it doesn’t garnish that much success.

Another problem facing Gulbis is he’s a bit of a headcase. On the prostitute fiasco, an alleged solicitation attempt, he commented that everyone should experience jail once in their lives with six hours of his spent behind bars.

Gulbis didn’t know of his lady friend’s career choice because he didn’t ask and after a fine he was free to go. On court he’s known to get frustrated quite often and destroying his racket heads in the process.

It’s a shame really that Gulbis isn’t seen more by the public. When beating Roger Federer after missing six match points he said in an interview “I was shitting in my pants”. Just imagine the kind of things he’d come out with. He’s the kind of guy who’d snog Sue Barker on-air for a laugh.

The game needs more characters and the public will be grateful if Gulbis can one day match the feats of Djokovic on and off centre court.

And of course we’ll be watching, in Ernests.

Bojana Jovanovski

Introducing the next star to come out of Serbia – Bojana Jovanovski.

Despite some dodgy questions a refreshing laid-back persona shines through.

Calling your opponent at Wimbledon “Australian girl” when being interviewed by a Brisbane-based network probably wasn’t a great move but the way she answered the final question like Ernie is obviously the correct choice redeemed her greatly.

Based on looks alone she already bears resemblance to both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic – the two Serbians ahead of her in the rankings – whilst her victory against the former certainly shows she possesses their on-court talent too.

As the youngest player in the top 100 of the WTA rankings (currently no. 55) she’s no doubt one to look out for.

With a second round appearance at SW19 and this year’s Australian Open in the bag she is set to make the main draw at the French Open for the first time this May.

The 19-year-old has a lot to live up to. Ivanovic won at Roland Garros in 2008 but since claiming the world number one spot after her third Grand Slam final and first victory she’s fallen outside the top 20 and has been even lower.

Jankovic was a semi-finalist that year and the only player to take a set off the eventual winner. However she has yet to win a major despite making the US Open final months after that defeat to Ivanovic.

But if women’s tennis taught us anything last year it’s that anything is possible. Francesca Schiavone came from nowhere to beat fellow surprise finalist Sam Stosur in the French Open whilst Tsvetana Pironkova’s semi-final run at Wimbledon defied all previous form.

Jovanovski has arguably more potential than both Schiavone and Pironkova with youth also on her side. Having yet to add a WTA title to her four ITF crowns the Serbian does have experience at Fed Cup level, performing strongly in straight set singles wins over Canadian’s Aleksandra Wozniak and Rebecca Marino.

Jankovic should have won a Slam by now, Ivanovic should probably have won more and Jovanovski should prove this year that the Serbian production line still has plenty of juice left in it.

Ana at the ready
Can Jovanovski reach the same heights as fellow Serbs Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic?

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