Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - IW: Not Nasty
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IW: Not Nasty 03/19/2009 - 7:50 PM

Ap Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Agnieszka Radwanska have started to clobber the ball back and forth. The sound—or, more precisely, thump—of the ball on their oversize stringbeds echoes into the upper reaches of the main stadium at the BNP Paribas Open. It's not surprising: The loudest competing noise comes from the half-dozen birds twittering to each other—not on cell phones—in the empty sections of the bleachers. At least you can't hear crickets.

It's 11:00 A.M., also known in certain dark zones of the pressroom as Zvonareva Hour. The theory is that matches are scheduled for this time so they'll end before too many spectators actually have to watch them. At this point, tiny clusters of fans dot a sea of blue seats. The sun, encircled by an unhealthy-looking rainbow—is that the ozone shredding as we speak?­—has made the backs of those seats virtually uninhabitable.

But if you've been following the tournament with any degree of interest, you know that this is a match worth seeing—maybe not worth burning your skin for, but worth a serious perusal nonetheless. It might even be a match with, as they say, implications. Pavlyuchenkova, currently ranked No. 42 in the world, is a 17-year-old Russian, a former No. 1 junior in the world, and a shockingly easy winner over No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic earlier in the tournament. She's even shown up on the front page USA Today's sports section this week. If she wins today, she'll reach her first WTA semifinal. It might be star time in Indian Wells.

This all seems a very long way from the last place these two players met, on a gray and blustery afternoon on a side court at Wimbledon in 2008. That day, Pavlyuchenkova couldn't have hit the Atlantic Ocean or the broad side of a barn or both of them put together. Radwanska, who had jumped past her old junior rival to No. 10 in the world by then, directed the ball down the middle of the court and waited to win the match. She did, 6-3, 6-2. Pavlyuchenkova's supporters, many from her training base at the Mouratoglou Academy in France, sat alongside the court in a deepening fog of gloom as they watched their student spray balls everywhere but inside the lines.

The most noticeable difference, at first glance, between then and now is Pavlyuchenkova's height. By sight, she appears to have shot up 2 to 3 inches. Apparently, that isn't true. In her press conference, she's asked if she's grown in the past year.

Pavlyuchenkova responds, her eyes widening as she goes, "I thought so, yes. Compared to my coach, every time I walk, I'm like, Look, I grew up. And we go to measure and it's the same height. I'm like, No? How come?

"And the medical checkup here," she went on (we've got another chatterer on our hands), "they measured the length of my legs. They grew up 2 centimenters. The legs are growing but not me. It's a miracle." (Fortunately she's a funny chatterer.)

Taller or not, Pavlyuchenkova is hitting harder and with infinitely more accuracy than she did last year at Wimbledon. Once a rally gets underway, she inevitably backs the slighter Radwanska behind the baseline. There are times when Radwanska is forced to bend both legs to meet the ball as it skids toward her, like a hockey goalie stopping a slap shot from center ice.

Pavlyuchenkova's shots are much heavier than Radwanska's. You can hear the difference: The Russian's come off her strings with a thick thud. She gets all of the ball, as they say in baseball. Like most other young women players, her backhand is more reliable. She begins with a long, Davenport-esque loop. The result, like Lindsay's so often was, is a devastatingly flat and penetrating ball.

If her backhand is reminiscent of other new WTA stars, her manner is less intense and temperamental than, say, the personality of her fellow breakout performer this week, Victoria Azarenka. That's not to say that Pavlyuchenkova doesn't get frustrated. When she makes an error, she can spin toward her coaches with as much disbelieving fury as the next millionare girl. But where Azarenka is lean and wiry and perpetually ready to be enraged, Pavlyuchenkova is husky and stolid. Her steps around the court aren't light, but she pushes off with power. After a crucial miss today, she makes a face of modest disgust—"Ugh"—but doesn't take time to berate herself.

"I think I'm getting more confident," Pavlyuchenkova says when asked about how she turned around the result from last year's match with Radwanska. "I think five or six times is enough to learn how to play against her. Well, if you're not stupid."

The weaknesses in Pavlyuchenkova's game come on the defensive side. She has trouble, like John Isner of all people, when she's stretched to her right. Radwanska has one of the softer serves in the Top 20, but today she's able to win free points by sliding the ball out wide on the deuce side. The Russian, like so many others of this generation of players, isn't well-rounded or tactically flexible—with her heavy ground stroke artillery, she may never need to be. Who needs to punch a perfect volley when you've got such an explosive swing volley? Pavlyuchenkova may make that shot, which she leaps at with abandon and assurance, a signature.

It's already a potent exclamation mark to her ground game. If she gains the advantage in a point and has time to set up, Pavlyuchenkova is deadly. She's still erratic, and she suffers the psychological ups and downs of anyone adjusting to the intensity of the pro game. But she's also learning to survive them. 

Serving at 3-3 and game point today, she botches a sitter overhead, a shot that has the potential to haunt her. But she puts it behind her by playing her best tennis of the afternoon to win the next six points—she hasn't let her anger get the best of her. A few minutes later, after blowing a set point in the tiebreaker, Pavlyuchenkova finally looks, for a split-second, like she's ready to fold, like she isn't quite ready to do this. Then she wins the next point, fires herself up for the first time in the tiebreaker, and finishes the set by drilling a backhand winner down the line. There's a sense that Pavlyuchenkova goes for this all-or-nothing shot because she's nervous and wants the point to end as soon as possible. But when they do go in, these are the types of shots that make players just a little less nervous the next time they're in the same situation. They remember the ball has gone in before. It's a nice lesson for a 17-year-old.

"Quite calm." That's Pavlyuchenkova's answer when she's asked about her mental outlook this week. Only the follow-up match after her win over Jankovic gave her butterflies. "I didn’t want people to think that, 'Well, you know, she just beat excellent player. Maybe Jankovic wasn't playing good.'" She has something to prove—that doesn't hurt.

Like I said, Pavlyuchenkoa is also a talker. But she's still enjoying every minute. She even smiled when she saw the assembled reporters waiting for her today, not a reaction we're all that used to. By the end of the presser, she'd talked tennis, shoe shopping, how her wardrobe door wouldn't shut, and finished up with a discussion of her nail polish.

"Normally, I don't care [about the color]," she says. "But this tournament, I try to put it to match my clothes. Now it's black with yellow." She holds up a nail and shows us where she has dabbed a dot of yellow.

That's as far as we got today, but there'll be plenty of time to find out more about Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. For now, she's a fresh face and an unspoiled personality. As much as exciting matches or great rivalries, these are the things that keep tennis exciting.

First, though, before we go any further, she needs a nickname. A much shorter nickname. Otherwise I'm going to spend a good part of my life trying to type her last name. In an earlier press conference, she was asked about this, most likely by a journalist who was also dreading typing that twisted line of letters every three sentences.

"In France they call me Papillion. 'Butterfly.' My name is Anastasia in Russia, but short name, like nickname, is Nastia. Not Nasty."

Not nasty at all.


Posted by MJ 03/19/2009 at 07:59 PM


Posted by MJ 03/19/2009 at 08:10 PM

Totally loving your posts this week, Steve - you're spoiling us!

Posted by Tennis Fan 03/19/2009 at 08:23 PM

Excellent post.

Posted by C Note 03/19/2009 at 08:46 PM

I'm here at IW and she's absolutely charmed me and my friends. Reminds me a bit of Ana Ivanovic in her personality and demeanor. It's nice to see someone appreciate the newness of it all and still have that unguarded nature.

Unlike some people at this tournament *cough*Vika*cough.

Posted by imjimmy 03/19/2009 at 08:57 PM

Thanks Steve. You're daily thoughts at IW are wonderful! You're really spoiling all of us. We'll except this every time!

Did you watch Nadal vs Nalbandian? Any thoughts on that match?

Posted by Syd 03/19/2009 at 09:09 PM


A superb piece of spots writing. I didn't skim, I actually read every word. That might not mean anything to you, to me, it means you are one heck of a writer.

Posted by Syd 03/19/2009 at 09:11 PM

ahem, and I'm not much of a typist. *massive typos amnesty*

Posted by Master Ace 03/19/2009 at 09:19 PM

If Anastasia plays relaxed tomorrow, Ana can be in a lot of trouble as Ana will have all the pressure on her.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" *fan of ugly-tennis and ball-bashing overachievers ;-)* 03/19/2009 at 09:26 PM

Steve - Very nice piece on Anastasia. What still impresses me most is the quick turnaround after her first performances of the year. And what annoys me most is that many of us missed all her matches. Thanks to WTA "less than below average" coverage.

Posted by sonya 03/19/2009 at 10:05 PM

Steve, another gem! Avid, I missed you, do you like how Rafa has been spoiling us with the blow-outs *winks* :). When I think all the great matches that we missed out with WTA, sigh, such a shame. Is there any confirmation that at least the finals will be televised? Larry Scott and his team seriously messed up here.

Posted by Tennis Fan 03/19/2009 at 10:25 PM

Rugby practice, blue hair and Roller-tennis? - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Videos from the ABS classic. You have to scroll down - 3rd from the bottom.

Posted by iloveagaradwanska 03/19/2009 at 10:31 PM

Noooooo! My day is ruined.

Posted by peacenharmony 03/20/2009 at 12:52 AM


Where can I watch the match...

Any channel on Sopcast for the Semifinals???

Please help guys. Would be very grateful

Posted by Master Ace 03/20/2009 at 01:36 AM

To me, it seem like WTA has the majority of the intriguing storylines while the ATP(except for Rafael 5 MPs escape) has been business as usual.

Posted by Sergio Cruz 03/20/2009 at 06:45 AM

Nice article:

You mention empty seats in Indian Wells, I see it and I see plenty of it every day on TV. Well blame our boys and girls that are willing to make the millions, but that will not show their teeth, at that is what people goes to see on any sport, the fight!

"This lack of excitement has by and large started with Pete Sampras and was followed in the last 4 years by a great tennis player, Roger Federer, who is more worried if the collar on his shirt is straight or if his hair is in place or if sweat has messed up his shirt, or yet gets his feathers all ruffled because someone challenges him, then about the fight or the SHOW!"

Sergio Cruz

Posted by Markic 03/20/2009 at 06:51 AM

Thanks for the very insightful article Steve! I've been wanting to find out more about her for a while. Watching her against Radwanska yesterday, she reminded me a lot of Capriati. She's gonna give Ivanovic Problems, especially if she can turn the match into a backhand duel. That said, her backhand down the line's gonna be useful too, as AI leaves a bit of room down the forehand side...

Posted by zolarafa 03/20/2009 at 10:11 AM

I honestly think none of you TW guys (except Andrew) watched Rafa-Nalby match. It was over 3 hours with ups and downs. 5 match points saved and one player came back from the brink. lots of good tennis and lots of drama. Yet, two days passed and no comment or analysis here (or on ESPN website). The fans write and ask but no reply!

Isn't it sort of injustice to the world No 1. Not only a very important match started at 11 pm and only about 1000 were able to watch it, it ended so late that even the journalists missed it and do not even bother writing about it. I hope you can at least let the organizers know how the fans feel.

Posted by luxsword 03/20/2009 at 01:30 PM

Good read. Nice way to know more about the young upcoming players. :)
Butterfly is papillon, btw (only one i). ;-)

Posted by Bill 03/20/2009 at 02:31 PM

"That's as far as we got today, but there'll be plenty of time to find out more about Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. For now, she's a fresh face and an unspoiled personality. As much as exciting matches or great rivalries, these are the things that keep tennis exciting."

Excellent synopsis. Thanks for sharing the story of a young woman who would otherwise be yet another slavic player with an unpronouncable last name to me.

Posted by Sher 03/20/2009 at 06:46 PM

so call her Cio-cio-san and be done with it :)

Posted by JillfromNY 03/20/2009 at 08:49 PM

I luv her name. And I hope she forces the American journalists to learn how to write and say it.

Posted by Herpes Simplex 07/03/2009 at 12:26 AM

Excellent synopsis. Thanks for sharing the story of a young woman who would otherwise be yet another slavic player with an unpronouncable last name to me.

Posted by Herpes Simplex 07/03/2009 at 12:27 AM

very nice post thanks!

Posted by Soft Cialis 10/09/2009 at 05:05 PM

I enjoy reading tennis blogs, Thank you for that important information.

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Posted by dog treats 11/24/2010 at 02:52 AM

Thanks for sharing, your article made me learn and improve thanks

Posted by pharmacy 07/15/2011 at 05:39 AM

Good luck in the next tournaments)

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