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Mertens, Pavlyuchenkova knock on the door

Matt Zemek

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They aren’t elite players, but they could be. They’re almost at that level, and who knows if their career breakthrough is just around the corner?

Tuesday in Madrid, Elise Mertens and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reminded us how good they are… and how good they can potentially be. Though neither player has reached a major final (Pavs hasn’t reached a major semifinal), we continue to see glimpses of how formidable they are when they compete at a supremely high level. They might not always PLAY well, but they have certainly figured out how to fight well… and they have shown enough to the tennis community to make it clear in the locker room that they are very tough outs in a draw.

Mertens trailed Simona Halep — the No. 3 seed and one of the best clay-court players on the planet — by a set. She then won a 56-minute second set and a 54-minute third set. Only a tough competitor could do that.

Mertens was down a break two different times in the third set. She fought back.

Mertens was playing a four-time Madrid finalist and two-time Madrid champion who has reached three Roland Garros finals and won one of them. She wasn’t intimidated.

Mertens is a poor person’s version of Ashleigh Barty: not imposing, but able to everything competently. Barty has more weight and bite on her shots than Mertens does, and a serve which gets her out of trouble more often, but Mertens is like Barty in that she displays great coping skills and doesn’t ordinarily get flustered. Merely that can create considerable success and longevity on tour. The win over Halep showed as much.

Pavlyuchenkova defeated this year’s earlier major-tournament runner-up, Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady. Though Brady is not a natural on clay, she is still a strong street fighter who has grown as a match manager, defensive player, and big-point player in recent years. Pavs lost an extended tiebreaker in the second set, on the precipice of victory. Many times in the past, Pavs would have crumbled in the third set. This time, she won an eight-deuce sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. She finished the job, 6-3, and moved into the quarterfinals.

This is the mature win which has often eluded Pavlyuchenkova in her career. You might not want to push all your poker chips into the middle of the table on her at Roland Garros, but Paris is the place where a younger Pavlyuchenkova memorably engaged Francesca Schiavone in a quarterfinal 10 years ago. Losing from 6-1, 4-1 up scarred Pavs and set in motion a career pattern of losing winnable matches. Yet, her ballstriking ability has always been formidable. The talent to do great things is there.

Could this win over Brady be the start of something special? Again, you don’t want to make a large wager on this sort of thing, but if Pavs made a run at Roland Garros, it wouldn’t be the most stunning thing you’ve ever seen.

A tremendous story? YES. It would not be the kind of moment in which you would tell yourself, “How is she doing this?”

We know Pavs is capable of playing great tennis. Handling moments (#INNERGAME) has been an obstacle. Fitness used to be a problem, but it isn’t anymore. She’s in great shape. She really could do something memorable in a few weeks.

What she is doing now ain’t chopped liver, either. The same goes for Elise Mertens.

Pavs and Mertens: Two players who are just a slight notch below elite could change that perception in the coming days and weeks. It’s a fascinating storyline in the 2021 clay season.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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