In a heated debate between parent and child, many a tiger mother has resorted to an ominous prediction in her rhetoric: “Wait until you have children; then you will understand.” It is a common adage heard in American households, but it feels strangely applicable as former champion Martina Hingis begins the European clay court swing, not as a player, but as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s new coach.
Ostensibly an odd pairing, there has been little in the young Russian’s career to make one draw comparisons to the “Swiss Miss.” Where Hingis arguably peaked before age 20, Pavlyuchenkova’s career has been defined by fits and starts; her 2013 resumé alone boasts two titles, one final and a whopping seven opening round losses. From the age of two, the five-time Slam champion was coached almost exclusively by her mother, Melanie Molitor, a former player from the Czech Republic who had named her daughter after national hero, Martina Navratilova.
By contrast, Pavlyuchenkova has gone through a bevy of coaching situations in the constant effort to tweak her game to be more reliable. In the last year, she finally returned to the Mouratoglou Academy (home to Serena Williams, Jeremy Chardy, and Yulia Putintseva), and cemented her partnership with Academy coach Hingis last week during the International event in Oeiras.
Even on a fundamental level, Pavlyuchenkova represents much of what drove Hingis from the top of the sport in the early 2000s. The Swiss superstar relied on guile and cunning to beat bigger, stronger opponents on a weekly basis, but even that was often not enough to compensate for her underpowered game. Pavlyuchenkova? She has enough stored-up power to keep the lights on at any stadium she plays. She may as well consider “tactics” a four letter word, as all of her biggest victories were moments when she bashed down the door with relentless efficiency. Ten years ago, that might have been enough to take the Russian to several Slam titles already.
But today, the most successful players combine brains and brawn, and those who rely too heavily on one or the other find themselves flattened by more complete players.
On some level, Hingis must feel relieved that, to a certain degree, that which Pavlyuchenkova lacks can be taught. As she herself learned the hard way, height and strength is not something one can glean from a couple of days on the practice court. But the two do appear to share a certain stubbornness that might make this arrangement more trouble than it’s worth.
From a pundit’s perspective, it looked like there was plenty Hingis could have done to compete with the changing Tour, from developing a faster serve, to ending her mother/coach relationship and improving her perceived lack of superhuman fitness. But as Hingis infamously said, she was a “player, not a worker.” She was content to make the best of her natural gifts and use them to hide her weaknesses for as long as she could.
Pavlyuchenkova, too, has sometimes bristled at the idea of improving. Despite lacking much of Hingis’s immediate Tour success, the Russian seemed in no rush to build on her emphatic run to the 2009 Indian Wells semifinals, and while she has made two Slam quarterfinals since then, her ranking has stalled outside the top 10, and both her fitness and consistency have left much to be desired.
Though she may blanch at the notion, Martina has become her mother. Once a player, she is now forced as coach to watch from the stands and hope that her charge is employing the techniques they discussed in practice. But after playing nearly two decades one way, how quickly will Pavlyuchenkova be able to find the balance between “brainless ballbasher” and “technical tactician?” How many matches is she willing to lose playing the right way instead of winning playing the wrong way? At least neither have to deal with the all-too-complex parent/child dynamic.
After all, Pavlyuchenkova’s coach isn’t “mom,” she’s “Martina Hingis.”
To win a tennis match, a player usually requires a near-perfect alignment of their physical and emotional states. For most, even the slightest niggling pain or mental wobble can derail what would otherwise be a clear course to victory. But to say that all players can achieve this elusive equilibrium would not only be a gross oversimplification of the game, but also ignores those who can make up for a physical lack on the strength of one muscle in particular: the heart.
Such heart was on full display during a first round encounter in Doha between Marion Bartoli and Francesca Schiavone. Bartoli, a notoriously unorthodox player who sports two-fisted groundstrokes, was recovering from a flu virus that ruled her out of a return to Fed Cup. Schiavone, her undersized and underpowered opponent, is a crafty veteran who has suffered a lackluster 18 months arguably fueled by decreased motivation. Both came to court seemingly aware of the other’s deficiencies and sensed their own opportunities.
The Italian was largely story of the first set. A player who has only won one of her last seven sets played, Schiavone was whipping the kind of angles that took her to the 2010 French Open title. Exposing Bartoli’s flu-hindered movement, she had multiple chances to take a 5-1 lead and re-assert her quickly fading presence on the WTA Tour.
For Bartoli, this was not simply a first match post-illness: this was the first time in her career that she was playing without lifelong coach, father Walter Bartoli. While she has expressed an interest in working with two-time Slam champion and French Fed Cup Captain Amelie Mauresmo, the Bartoli came to Doha only with a fitness coach from the French Tennis Federation, the governing body that kept her out of the last two Olympic Games. With all of these careening circumstances, the stage appeared to be set for a Schiavone comeback performance.
Assuming this underestimates Marion’s own heart. The Frenchwoman, regardless of illness, may not be the fittest player on tour (something that might be due to training methods like these), but like Schiavone, has been able to rely on her heart, mind and resilience to pull off some improbable victories. Looking down and out at the US Open against former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Bartoli charmed a packed Grandstand crowd with her earnest effusiveness as she turned the match around and bageled her highly lauded opponent in the third set.
After holding for 2-4, she took advantage of Schiavone’s suddenly tentative play and began red-lining her own game for some incredible winners off of the Italian’s serve. The tiebreaker was a tense affair, but Bartoli kept her nose in front and parlayed the momentum into a big second set advantage.
Schiavone was far from finished, however. She used all of her veteran wiles to put off the inevitable, even attempting to engage Bartoli at the net following a failed volley attempt. With both beneath peak physical condition, the two played brilliant all-court rallies on guts alone as the Frenchwoman wrapped up the match in straight sets.
Playing another gutsy player in Kuznetsova, Bartoli will have to hope she recovers from the draining physical effort that comes from fending off a game opponent. If not, she will have to call again upon that indomitable heart.