Steckley and Pavlyuchenkova – Toronto, and more?

TORONTO – A new face appeared in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s player box at the Rogers Cup in Toronto this week.

It was Toronto native Rob Steckley, who did such great work for many years with Pavlyuchenkova’s friend and longtime doubles partner, the now-retired Lucie Safarova.

We’re told that Pavlyuchenkova has asked Steckley to be there during the North American hard-court swing, including Cincinnati next week and the US Open.

That’s not firmed up yet. We’ll keep you posted if we get an update.

Pavlyuchenkova had a terrific win over No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the first round in Toronto. Sabalenka, who made her move a year ago during this hard-court swing, has struggled in 2019 but reached the final in San Jose last week.

She then went down to Jelena Ostapenko – another player who has struggled in 2019 – in three sets in the second round. It was a shame, because next up for the winner was qualifier Marie Bouzkova. That’s a nice draw for a third round at a Premier 5 tournament.

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Pavlyuchenkova and Safarova are friends and longtime doubles partners. So no doubt Steckley came highly recommended. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Incredible junior career –> good pro career

A former No. 1 junior, Pavlyuchenkova seemed a sure thing to roll straight to the top of the women’s game. Her singles record at the ITF junior level was 131-23. And it was a quality era, as well.

Pavlyuchenkova
Pavlyuchenkova came within a match of winning the junior doubles calendar Grand Slam in 2006. She won in Australia and Paris with Sharon Fichman, at Wimbledon with Alisa Kleybanova and lost the US Open junior doubles final with Fichman.

Among the players she squared off against were Halep, Wozniacki, Radwanska, Cibulkova, Cornet and Oudin.

She won the Australian Open junior singles twice, the US Open and was a finalist at the French Open. The Russian also won six junior Grand Slam titles.

Pavlyuchenkova reached her career-high WTA ranking of No. 13 the day after her 20th birthday. But that was all the way back in 2011. And yet, she has never dropped out of the top 50 since she first entered it all the way back in Oct. 2008.

Although she has finished seven of the last nine seasons ranked in the top 30 (and not that far out of that during the other two), her skill level would indicate she should have been better.

Taking that next step

The Russian has a streak of 46 consecutive Grand Slam appearances going all the way back to the 2008 French Open. She has made five quarterfinals in that span. She also has lost in the first round 12 times since the 2013 Australian Open.

Pavlyuchenkova lost in the first round of both the French Open and Wimbledon this year.

Connected with the Mouratoglou Academy earlier in her career, Pavlyuchenkova has had a number of coaches in recent years including Joakim Nystrom, Dieter Kindlmann, Thomas Drouet and David Goffin’s brother, Simon. She also has worked periodically with her older brother Alexander, whom she says had far more talent than she, but made some bad choices.

Steckley-Safarova summer turned into more

There’s a certain symmetry to this prospective collaboration.

Seven long years ago, a younger Steckley, who hadn’t had much experience coaching at the top level, “stepped in” for Safarova’s longtime coach Biljana Veselinovic at this same Rogers Cup tournament.

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Back at the 2012 Rogers Cup, Rob Steckley filled in for Lucie Safarova’s regular coach. It turned into a long-term relationship that was beneficial for both. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

That year, it was in Montreal. It wasn’t a long-term thing – just a temporary substitution. 

But not long after, when Safarova was looking for a full-time coach a little over a year alter, she went with Steckley. And he help her to reach the best heights of her career.

Safarova reached her career-high singles ranking of No. 5 after the 2015 US Open. She reached the French Open final that year, and the Wimbledon semis in 2014. She also won five Grand Slam doubles titles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

From the fall of 2018 until after Miami, Steckley coached Canadian Denis Shapovalov – his first major dive onto the men’s side.

Stephens-Pavlyuchenkova a heated affair

On a cool Sunday evening, the center court in Beijing heated up – big time– as the first-round match between No. 9 seed Sloane Stephens and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia evolved into a personal confrontation.

Up a set, but down 2-5 in the second set having previously indicated discomfort in her right shoulder, Pavlyuchenkova asked for the trainer.

That’s not an unusual occurrence. But when it happens just before the opponent serves for the set, it’s generally frowned upon.

That’s true even though there’s nothing specific in the WTA Tour rulebook that prohibits it.

The only provisions are that it occur during a changeover or set break. (Conversely, a player may not go off on a toilet break when it’s not a set break, if it’s just before the opponent’s serve).

A player can stop play in the middle of a game (regardless of who is serving) for an acute injury.

So perhaps that covers the pre-opponent-serve changeovers. But in this case, it didn’t appear to be an acute injury; you would interpret to mean a sudden, sharp pain somewhere, a rolled ankle, something like that.

Stephens, who had the momentum, clearly felt it was meant to slow her up. She had just broken her opponent for the 5-2 lead.

A seven-minute, 40-second inopportune break

Here was the timeline (the tennis.life clock starts when Stephens sits down).

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35s: Chair umpire Jenny Zhang makes the announcement that the trainer has been called.

1:43: Zhang says something to Stephens, she nods.

1:55: Trainer finally arrives.

3:45: Trainer says they’ll take a medical time out.

4:30: Stephens coach Kamau Murray comes out. Stephens puts on some lip balm.

“Stay positive. Stay forward. We’re all good. Stay focused. Don’t come out and have a sleepy first two points,” Murray said.

Then umpire Zhang then says something, which elicits a wry smirk from Murray.

The physio rubbed some stuff into Pavlyuchenkova’s shoulder; the issue seemed to be in the front of the shoulder, near the chest.

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6:55: Pavlyuchenkova puts her pullover back on.

7:15: Zhang calls “Time”

7:40: Stephens’ first serve, as she tries to serve out the set.

Of course, she’s broken. And after Pavlyuchenkova held serve to narrow the gap to 5-4, Stephens had something to get off her chest. So she arrived at the chair talking to Zhang, who said something to her.

“That’s the sport we play. Right? Sportsmanship. That’s REALLY important,” Stephens replied to Zhang. There was, er, a noticeable tinge of sarcasm in that remark.

And clearly, Pavlyuchenkova heard it over the loud changeover music.

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After the second set, a confrontation. Pavlyuchenkova didn’t want to let the “sportsmanship” comment, which she (correctly) felt was aimed at her, go unchallenged.

Zhang immediately hopped down from her chair to get between the two.

“I’m disrespectful? What’s disrespectful? You called the physio at 5-2. You’re not even injured,” Stephens said.

“How do you know I’m not injured?” Pavlyuchenkova replied.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t be ridiculous. … No, you’re disrespectful. … It’s fine. … Play the third set. It’s fine,” Stephens replied.

(As we know, whenever some says “it’s fine”, it’s typically far less than actually fine.

“You got what you wanted. You got the physio. So I don’t see what the problem is,” Stephens added.

When “it’s fine”, it’s rarely fine

Stephens then spoke again to Zhang.

“She called the physio. She got the physio. (So) she got what she wanted. It’s fine,” Stephens said. “I’m allowed to say whatever I want. I spoke to you. I didn’t address her at all.”

“You did it for me. And I heard it. And that’s disrespectful,” Pavlyuchenkova replied.

“I addressed her. I spoke to her. So fine, leave it alone,” Stephens retorted.

At no point was there any profanity. In fact, the two were remarkably civilized about it. Neither raised her voice.

After that exchange, coach Simon Goffin (the brother of David) came out to speak with Pavlyuchenkova. He told her (in French) to calm herself. To be positive. He said that as much as she says she has “evolved mentally”, now was the time to show exactly that.

Tense third set

Both players came out hitting impressively. But Stephens broke Pavlyuchenkova in the opening game. And then she broke again for 3-0.

Pavlyuchenkova recuperated one of the breaks. But the other held up until 5-4, when Stephens tried to serve it out.

There were no tense moments during the changeovers. Pavlyuchenkova was walking much more briskly to her chair then Stephens. So they didn’t come close to running into each other.

Except for that 5-4 changeover.

Notably, Stephens stood and waited until Pavlyuchenkova had gone by before heading over to her side of the court.

And despite second serves clocking in at 113 and 105 kilometres per hour, she got the job done.

Just here for the handshake

These two 20-somethings (Stephens is 25, Pavlyuchenkova 27) resolved it all like the grownups they are.

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After a handshake and and a very civilized conversation at the net, it ended with Stephens saying, ‘All good?”. And so, they went their separate ways after a two-hour, 53-minute battle.

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It was Stephens’s first win on the fall Asian swing since … Oct. 2015.

She didn’t play it at all in 2016; her season ended after the Rio Olympics because of the foot issue that required surgery some six months later.

Last year, the American headed to the Far East after that momentous victory at the US Open. She lost decisively in the first rounds of Wuhan and Beijing, and then dropped both her matches in the second-tier Tour final in Zhuhai.

This year, Stephens lost her first-round match in Tokyo, 6-4, 6-4 to Donna Vekic.

Next up is Chinese wild card Saisai Zheng.

(Screenshots from WTATV.com)