Her name is a tongue-twister, and her game is becoming equally difficult for foes to master.
Since Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova burst onto the international tennis scene by winning the Australian Open junior title at a precocious 14, she’s been touted as the next Russian star. “Pavlyuchenkova has a well-rounded, powerful game reminiscent of compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova and the killer instinct of fellow Russian Maria Sharapova,” wrote USA Today. Her perfect 31-0 match record after capturing the first set this year attests to her reputation.
Although she ranks a career-high No. 20 − at age 19 she’s the best teenager in the world − her transition from the world No. 1 junior in 2006 to the pro ranks was anything but smooth. Yet the lovely 5’10” blonde has a positive attitude and says she has “the perfect job.”
I learned more about “Princess,” as her friends call her, during our interview at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven.
What was your life like growing up in Samara, a large industrial city on the Volga River in southeastern Russia?
It was a beautiful life. I started playing tennis when I was six years old. I was working hard, but I was having fun because I love tennis and had lots of friends there. So it was nice.
Please tell me about your parents Sergey and Marina and what they’ve taught you about tennis and life.
They both used to be great athletes and my grandparents as well. My mom was a swimmer and my dad was a canoeist. He was going to compete in the 1980 Olympics, but it was stopped because of the boycott. My grandmother played basketball on the USSR national team, and my grandfather was a high-level basketball referee. In addition to coaching me tennis on the court, my parents taught me a lot of things about life, especially the importance of discipline and hard work.
Who were your favorite tennis players when you were a young girl? And why did you like them?
I liked Steffi Graf because she had a lot of versatility in her game; she could do everything. She was a great athlete and a great tennis player.
What were the biggest problems you experienced in making the transition in 2006 from being the No. 1 junior in the world in both singles and doubles to trying to win matches on the WTA Tour?
It was a tough time for me because I put a lot of pressure on myself. After being No. 1 in the juniors, I thought it would be quite easy to win matches on the WTA Tour. I thought I would get ranked high, just as in the past. It didn’t work out like that, of course. In the beginning it took a lot of time and a lot of work [to start winning matches consistently]. I also had to change the way I was playing. It was a really tough transition. I was really frustrated for a while.
Patrick Mouratoglou coached you from July 2007 to August 2009 at his prestigious academy in Paris. On the academy website, you said: “I was in a nightmare … Patrick woke me up.” What exactly did you mean by that?
The thing is, I didn’t say that. It was his media director who decided to put that up on his website. When I came to the academy, I was still the No. 1 junior in the world, so it’s wrong to say I was in a nightmare. It is true that I was frustrated by not winning a lot of singles matches on the WTA Tour. But I was still making a few quarters and semis in singles and winning some doubles on the WTA Tour and the ITF Tour, and I had a ranking. I didn’t get into the top 20 or even the top 50, but I was still winning some matches, so I didn’t have nightmares, that’s for sure.
Please tell me about the 2009 Indian Wells tournament where you beat No. 3 Jankovic 6-4, 6-4 and No. 10 Radwanska 7-6, 6-4 to reach your first Tour semifinal and what it meant to your career.
I was 17 and I reached my [then] highest ranking, No. 27. It was big for me. I felt I can now beat those top players and make excellent results even at that young age. So it gave me a lot of confidence, but I actually relaxed a little bit when I reached the semifinals. I felt if I continued like that it would be enough. So when the results didn’t go as well, I woke up and started to work hard again, even harder. I learned I have to play well every week.
In September 2009 you upset Venus Williams 7-6, 7-5 at Tokyo, and then a week later at Beijing, you upset Venus again, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. What did those two big wins prove to you?
In Tokyo I was alone actually and didn’t have anyone from my team, so I passed through the qualies [qualifying rounds] and won in the first round, and when I played Venus, I just wanted to enjoy the match as much as I could. I played Venus the year before and I won only one game. So I thought I have nothing to lose and I should just try to have a good match, and, of course, try to upset her. After I beat her, I was incredibly happy. Then the next week I played her again, and I thought that she’s such an experienced player that she’d be much more aggressive and it would be tougher. It was tougher. But I said to myself: You have to believe you can beat her because if you beat her once, you can do it again. That helped me win the second time.
About the final in Istanbul, you Twittered, “What a crazy match! I was 5-7, 0-4 down, and then 1-3 in the third set.” How did you pull out the final against Elena Vesnina?
It was a really crazy match. I was a little bit upset after the first set because I was ahead 5-2 and serving for the set and I had a set point. Suddenly, something went against me, the opposite way, and I started to miss, and I started to panic. She had a lot of courage and hit every ball hard and putting it in. I was fighting for every point, but I was losing because she was playing unbelievably well. When I was down 4-0 [in the second set], I was really close to losing, so I thought this is a final and I’m not going to let it end like this and let her win. I thought she still has to win two more games, so I just tried to fight for every point.
Two weeks ago in Cincinnati you had your best tournament in terms of a series of major wins when you beat No. 24 Hantuchova (6-3, 6-4), No. 6 Dementieva (6-1, 6-3), No. 17 Peer (5-7, 6-4, 6-4) and No. 16 Wickmayer (7-5, 3-6, 6-1) before losing to No. 15 Sharapova (6-4, 3-6, 6-2). What did Cincinnati tell you about your recent progress?
It tells me a lot actually. Besides beating Hantuchova and Dementieva, it’s kind of easy playing against those kind of players because you are a lot more focused against them because they are really good players. You respect them a lot, and you have nothing to lose. But Peer and Wickmayer are at the same level as me, so it’s a little more difficult. Those matches were tough, but I pulled them out in three sets. It proved that my game and my fighting spirit have improved, especially that after I won Istanbul, I could do so well at Cincinnati. I fought the same way every match. That also means a lot.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being coached by your brother Aleksandr?
It’s a lot of fun because he is a very calm guy, plus he is my brother. It is always good to have someone around you from your family, and he plays good tennis. The disadvantage is he always tells me the truth! Actually, I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing, so probably that is an advantage, too.
You’ve said that playing on the pro tour “is the perfect job.” Please explain why.
I enjoy it a lot because I like to travel, and we travel a lot and we see a lot of interesting cities, and we meet a lot of new people. It’s a great opportunity, plus I’m doing the work I like. I’ve liked playing tennis since I was a little girl. So, all together, it’s a very nice life.
At only 19, you have already traveled around the world a few times. Who are the most famous and interesting people you have met?
I have met Evgeny Plushenko, the Olympic figure skating champion from Russia. I met him two or three years ago. We had dinner together and talked and it was nice. It was interesting to meet Anna Kournikova as well because she’s much older and she’s from Russia. And I had a chance to play World TeamTennis in 2006 on the team with her, and I was still a junior so at that time it was “Like wow, I was lucky to play with somebody this famous and a great person as well.” She has a really interesting personality. And she’s also a really smart and beautiful woman.
Who are your best friends on the WTA Tour?
I have a lot of good friends. I get along quite well with everybody, especially Russians.
You are fluent in English. How and where did you learn English so well? And how many languages can you speak, read and write?
I started to learn English with a home teacher [tutor] first, and then when I traveled a lot, I talked a lot with foreign people and taught myself basically. I also speak French. I write and read a little bit of French. I can speak Czech, which is similar to Russian, and, of course, I know Russian.
You seem to be well-adjusted and lead a balanced life. What do you like to do most when you are not practicing and competing in tennis?
I like to sing, listen to the music, hang out with friends, go to the cinema and go shopping.
You’ve said, “Everyone calls me ‘Princess.’ ” Why do they call you that?
(Laughter). I don’t know. Of course, my family and my friends call me this the most. It’s because I like girlie, funky stuff like dresses, jewelry, bracelets, hair bands. My bedroom is pink. Sometimes I behave like a princess, like a little girl, like a girlie princess.
What books have you liked the most? And why?
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a lovely book. It tells the story of a divorced woman who spent a year trying to discover her identity. She enjoyed la dolce vita and tried to find joy in Italy. Then she does long hours of meditation to try to discover her true self in India. And then she finds her love in Indonesia. It’s a very interesting and exciting book. It’s a great story. The woman in the book reminds me of myself a lot. I like that she is an extraordinary woman. It’s a true story.
For some reason, the top Russian women were not interested in playing Fed Cup last year and this year. You were recruited last year and lost 7-6, 4-6, 6-2 to Italy’s Francesca Schiavone and in doubles with Nadia Petrova 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. How important is it for you to win in the Fed Cup for yourself and to have Russia win the Fed Cup again?
It’s important because I like to win in everything − whatever I do, I like to win. I have been playing team competitions very often for Russia since I was 12, and I won a lot in the World Cup in the 12, 14 and 16s [divisions]. So I like team competitions and team spirit. Of course, you feel great and proud of yourself and proud of your country, especially when you win a point for your team. As long as I have an opportunity, I always play for Russia.
Who is your fitness coach? And what areas do you stress in your fitness training?
My fitness coach is from Barcelona, from the academy where I train now. Gabriel Echevarria is my trainer. We focus on all areas that are important in tennis.
Do you think you would improve your speed, stamina and results if you lost about 10 or more pounds?
Yes, maybe. I experienced a lot when I was on a diet in France. It didn’t work well. I need more time until my body is more mature. In time, it will happen.
If you could win any Grand Slam tournament, which one would it be? And why?
This is one of the toughest questions because for me every Grand Slam tournament is special. I don’t really care which one is the first one I win. If I win the U.S. Open, I will be so happy, and the same is true for the French Open. They all mean a lot to me.
You’ve said your favorite surface is clay, though.
Yes, my favorite surface is clay, but my results are better on hard courts. (Laughter)
You are only 19 years old and many tennis fans do not know much about you. What else would you like to tell the tennis world about yourself and what to expect from you in the future?
I like a lot of the same things that normal girls my age who go to school like. I like fashion, and I like to have fun, and I like to make friends. So I don’t sit in a room and focus only on tennis and the next match. But I would like to be No. 1 in the world.
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