By age 12, she made the decision to focus solely on tennis — simply because she hated the cold weather.
Now, she’s two wins away from the 2021 French Open title.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had played in six major singles quarterfinals, and another five in doubles, but had never advanced to the semifinals.
Until Tuesday. A decade after making her first quarterfinal appearance, in the French Open, the 29-year-old defeated her doubles partner, Elena Rybakina, 6-7 (2), 6-2, 9-7.
In a side of the draw that featured Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu at the tournament’s start, it will be the unlikely pairing of Zidansek and Pavlyuchenkova — with a combined ranking of 117 — battling for a spot in the final in their first career meeting.
“It feels overwhelming,” Zidansek said Tuesday. “It’s hard to take it in like this fast, you know. But I’m just trying to focus on my game, on myself.”
For a player who has never won a WTA title and only ever advanced to the semifinal round or beyond three times in a tournament of any level on the WTA Tour, it has been a miraculous run for Zidansek, 23, at Roland Garros. Ranked No. 85 in the world and having never advanced past the second round at a major prior to arriving in Paris, Zidansek upset No. 6 seed Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, in her opening match, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (2), 9-7. It was the first top-10 victory of her career — and she hasn’t looked back.
Tuesday, she held on to win a nerve-filled battle of wills in the quarterfinals against Paula Badosa, a rising star who was coming off her first career title in Serbia. Playing for the first time in her career on Court Philippe Chatrier, Zidansek relied on her powerful forehand to close out the nearly 2½-hour marathon, 7-5, 4-6, 8-6.
“Winning the first round was a big breakthrough for me,” Zidansek said. “I got a lot of confidence from that. I mean, before the tournament I was feeling really good. I was playing good, especially on clay. Had some good matches.
“So, yeah, when it started to click? I don’t know. I just kept going match by match. Every day is a chapter for itself, you know. I’m just gonna keep doing that and hope for the best.”
Making the semifinals of a Grand Slam is monumental for any player, but for Zidansek, it’s historic. She is the first player representing Slovenia to make it this far and said she is excited to join the country’s impressive list of global stars like NBA players Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic and Olympic ski champion Tina Maze.
“Considering that we have only 2 million people, I’m really happy to be a part of the athletes that [are] doing this good,” Zidansek said.
Tuesday’s victory will move her into the top 50 for the first time — something she said has been her goal since she first cracked the top 100 in 2018. A trip to the final would put her right outside of the top 30, and if she were able to pull off the nearly unthinkable by hoisting the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, she would be nearing the top 20. The prize money for making the semifinals is nearly half of what she has made as a professional tennis player — and the $1.7 million she would make if she were to win the title would more than double her career earnings.
The increase in ranking and earnings wouldn’t be as dramatic for Pavlyuchenkova, the tournament’s No. 31 seed, but a trip to the finals and potentially winning a Grand Slam title would be equally life changing.
Having been the top-ranked junior player and having won the girls’ titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2006, the expectations were high for Pavlyuchenkova as soon as she turned professional. She reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2008 as the youngest player in the draw and recorded wins over Alize Cornet and Li Na along the way. She won her first title in 2010 at the Monterrey Open and reached a career-high ranking of No. 13 in 2011.
She has since won 11 more titles, most recently in Strasbourg in 2018, but she has never quite reached the level many were expecting following her success as a teenager. Pavlyuchenkova said she has frequently doubted at times if she could compete with the top players.
“Even [in the] beginning of this year I had very tough draws and lost [in the] Australian Open to Naomi [Osaka],” Pavlyuchenkova said. “Was quite easy match [for Osaka], 6-2, 6-1. I felt like I have no chance. Doha, Dubai, like big tournaments against big players. … It always sucks to lose, but if you’re feeling, ‘Okay, it’s very close match and I almost had it,’ it’s tough but you feel [like], ‘Okay, it’s fine, next time.’
“But [that] time I felt like I was really far [away]. Then it makes you think, like, are you really — I’m not there at this level? Like, what am I doing? So you question yourself a lot.”
Pavlyuchenkova started working with a sports psychologist — Zidansek does as well — and she arrived in Paris coming off a semifinal appearance in Madrid and feeling increasingly confident in her clay court game. A 6-4, 2-6, 6-0, win over Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 3 seed and the Madrid champion, in the third round put everyone on notice.
She defeated Victoria Azarenka, the two-time major champion and former world No. 1, two days later to secure her spot in the quarterfinals. Like Zidansek, she needed extra games Tuesday to defeat Rybakina in a grueling match that lasted over 2½ hours. In the end, she said she felt as if everything finally was clicking for her.
“I think I have always had the game,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I have always played good. It’s just my mental wasn’t there. I wasn’t fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough, where I’m working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recent, and already I feel like it’s starting to pay off.”
After a combined 11 losing trips to the quarterfinals in singles and doubles before snapping the streak, Pavlyuchenkova now will have another chance to make the final four. She and Rybakina will play on Wednesday with a doubles semifinal berth on the line.
Despite finally getting over the hurdle that had stood in her way for so long and with one of the best opportunities of her career in front of her, Pavlyuchenkova said she wouldn’t even think about the match against Zidansek until after her doubles match.
“I try to take it as another match that I won in this tournament, and I’m not going to change any routines,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “So tomorrow I’m just gonna go do my cooldown, treatment, and I’ve got a doubles [match] to play with Elena. We [are] gonna warm up together and play normal doubles, and nothing’s going to change for me.”
Nothing’s going to change for now, but it might over the next four days.
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