“I’m in pain.”
“I know. I can see it.”
As reported by WTA Insider, those are the exact words spoken during a coaching visit early in the third set of Thursday’s Coupe Rogers match in Montreal between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Simona Halep.
Who was in pain? Halep. Who could see that she was? Coach Darren Cahill.
That visit occurred at *2-1 Pavlyuchenkova in the third set. The Russian was clearly hitting the ball much more powerfully. Halep did not have anything close to the full measure of punch and potency on her groundstrokes. The full-energy version of Halep would have taken a first-set escape (won 11-9 in a tiebreaker after Pavlyuchenkova had set point) and run away with it in the second set, but this was not that iteration. This was a player trying to soldier through physical difficulty on a hot and humid day in the teeth of summer. Montrealers in the stands were fanning themselves, desperately trying to stay somewhat cool… and failing to do so. For the players who had played roughly 2.5 hours when that third-set coaching visit arrived, the day was even more oppressive. The idea that Halep was playing in pain was not an exaggeration. Her coach confirmed as much.
Given this circumstance, the table was set for Pavlyuchenkova to grab a high-end win, advance to the quarterfinals, and gain a better chance at winning the signature championship of a career which has been bereft of mountaintop moments. Pavs has 12 WTA titles to her credit, but none beyond the Premier level. One Premier 5 semifinal, one Premier Mandatory semifinal — that’s the height of Pavs’ resume at the big tournaments. She owns zero major semifinal showings.
A talented ballstriker would have no reason to lament or fret about those results at age 21, or even 23… but Pavlyuchenkova is 27. Much like Sorana Cirstea — age 28, who let a winnable match get away from her on Thursday in Montreal against Venus Williams — Pavs has ample experience on tour. She is a well-established veteran, a familiar traveler of the roads of professional tennis. Yet, she is a testament to the idea that sometimes, “Experience isn’t good when the only form of it is bad.” Experience is supposed to be a teacher and a source of learning, but Pavs — like Cirstea — can never seem to learn…
… not even on a day when her opponent was playing through pain.
The specific tragedy of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and other pros like her, is not that she lacks shots. She has them. She showed them many years ago in a 2011 French Open quarterfinal in which she nearly defeated then-defending champion Francesca Schiavone. (One could argue that the loss to Schiavone set her career on its snake-bitten course.) Pavlyuchenkova fought and competed well on Thursday against Halep. She easily could have packed it in and gone home after that wrenching loss of the first set in a 20-point tiebreaker. However, she battled back to win the second set by taking the initiative and not backing down from the World No. 1. She gained the early lead in the third and held her nerves a few more times to create a *4-3 lead. All that was left was the finish line.
Pavs couldn’t cross it.
This is the profound challenge of tennis, due to its point-specific scoring system: Whereas an aggregate scoring format (most total points) rewards being good early in a competition, tennis is specifically geared toward mastering the endings of sequences.
In baseball — which has a lot of similarities to tennis but still owns some notable differences — grabbing a seven-run lead in the first of nine innings generally means that the leading team will win. Taking a 10-point lead early in an American football game, or a three-goal lead early in an international football match or a hockey game, will also mean near-certain victory.
Tennis can reward good starts to an extent — players would certainly rather lead 4-1 in a set than trail 4-1, or lead 5-2 in a tiebreaker rather than trail 5-2 — but the reality of playing the next point means that tennis scores don’t remain static. They always change. Three-goal leads in football or hockey don’t necessarily change. Five-run leads in baseball don’t necessarily change. Tennis scores differ in that way. They change, and that’s why “finishing what you started” is more precisely evident in tennis than other sports — it’s not that other sports DON’T involve that dynamic, but tennis involves it MORE.
Pavs has not been able to finish what she starts. Her career has been spent trying to learn how to pull it off, but she has continuously fallen short, and Thursday was merely the latest example.
The essential point to make on the heels of this discussion is that every player will lose a fair amount of close matches. Roger Federer has lost a lot of matches after having held match point, his Wimbledon quarterfinal against Kevin Anderson being the latest example. Playing for many years on tour will inevitably involve picking up many close losses along the way. That’s competition.
The problem — and the great sadness, therefore — of Pavlyuchenkova’s latest loss to Halep is not that it happened, but that it has so regularly happened before, with few victories to stand in the other column on the ledger sheet. When players face close matches time and time again, they shouldn’t expect to always come through those difficult moments. Pavs, not being an elite player, shouldn’t expect to win 70 or 75 percent of the time against similarly talented players in significant matches with close scorelines.
Yet, she doesn’t even meet modest standards. The number of occasions in which she fails greatly exceed the number of situations in which she pulls through. This Halep loss, in 3 hours and 8 minutes, isn’t the problem; it’s the long, unbroken track record of not solving these puzzles when they arrive.
If Pavlyuchenkova had a track record which showed that she usually figured out these white-knucklers, this loss would be a blip on a radar screen. Because that track record is very different from what it could be — and should be — this loss is yet another reminder that while Halep endured on-court pain, Pavs has to deal with a kind of pain which is much harder to expunge.
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