The Danielle Collins-Angelique Kerber match was an Australian Open mystery, to be sure, but that was a “fall out of bed the wrong way” mystery. Another match from the WTA side of the recently-concluded fortnight in Melbourne owned a lot more texture and drama. This is the mystery I am fascinated by as the 2019 tennis season moves into February.
When Sloane Stephens won a first-set tiebreaker against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the fourth round of the Australian Open, I thought Stephens already had one foot inside the quarterfinals. Stephens might have parted with Kamau Murray (who recently became the coach of Monica Puig), but no player completely forgets how to play just because of a coaching change. Murray helped Stephens rise to great heights, but his presence (or absence) shouldn’t affect whether Sloane beats Pavlyuchenkova in the round of 16 at an important tournament.
Stephens, at her best, is a problem solver and a player who will make her opponent hit a lot of shots to win points. Pavs is a player who might find the zone for a 30-minute segment within a match, but often comes down from that mountain long enough to lose a scoreboard advantage against formidable opposition. Stephens loves pace, and Pavlyuchenkova provides that. Stephens, by winning the first set in Melbourne, put Pavs in an extremely difficult position.
The fact that Pavs then won the next two sets, 3 and 3, to advance to the quarterfinals and face the aforementioned Collins, represents a real puzzle: Was this more of an indicator of the kind of season Stephens is likely to have, or a sign that a fitter, trimmer Pavs is ready to take the next step as a professional tennis player this season… or both, or neither?
All four answers strike me as being entirely possible, and I’m not sure which one is the most likely.
Acclaimed tennis journalist and historian Steve Flink joined Saqib Ali for the Tennis With An Accent Podcast just before the Australian Open. He expressed great skepticism about Stephens’ 2019 season (among the many other topics he addressed in his conversation with Saqib). That might tip the scales toward the Stephens-centric answer. Yet, when I look at Pavlyuchenkova, she has clearly improved her fitness and is still just 27 years old. It seems as though she has been around forever, but she has several years of good tennis left in her if she keeps working at her game.
How many times have we seen a player hit the late 20s and begin to figure out all sorts of lessons which simply didn’t penetrate earlier in a career? Pavlyuchenkova could join this group.
I don’t know, though — that’s why they call it a mystery.
I will constantly check in on these two players to see how they carry themselves through 2019. This match in Australia will continue to be a reference point for two careers currently shrouded in uncertainty.