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.

Pavlyuchenkova
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.

Pavlyuchenkova
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.

Lucie Safarova scraps Aussie career finale

Lucie Safarova had planned to officially end her career at the Australian Open later this month.

Unfortunately, she won’t get the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to both tennis and her many friends in the game.

Tendonitis in her wrist has forced the veteran Czech to scrap those plans.

The 31-year-old (she turns 32 Feb. 4) won the Australian Open women’s doubles title in both 2015 and 2017 with good friend Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

With Mattek-Sands playing with new partner Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands, Safarova had entered with countrywoman Barbora Strycova.

Safarova and Strycova reached the quarterfinals a year ago

A proper goodbye – somewhere

Safarova wrote on Instagram that she plans to say farewell on court, somewhere, sometime soon. To be determined.

She hadn’t played a Tour event since last September in Quebec City. So this was a one-shot deal to close out her impressive career.

The Czech lefty also had entered the singles, and was the third alternate for the main draw with her current singles ranking of No. 105.

There hasn’t been a single official withdrawal yet, with the qualifying set to begin on Tuesday. But you’d have to think she’d have had a good shot at getting in.

Safarova had played some club matches in the Czech Republic during the offseason.

No word yet on whom Strycova might enlist as a replacement for the doubles. The official entries closed Friday at noon, Melbourne time.

Safarova announces she’ll retire in Oz

Safarova reunites with coach Steckley

Lucie Safarova had the best moments of her career with the man we call the “WTA Whisperer”, Canadian Rob Steckley

And as the 2018 season dawns, they have reunited.

“Coach Rob Steckley is back and I’m looking forward to work together in 2018! Watch how we prepare for Australia! I think I’m ready!” was the announcement from the 30-year-old Czech on her Facebook page.

It was just a brief reunion for now; Steckley already is on his way back to Toronto for the holidays. On the plus side, it’s not as though they need to get to know how the other works. It’s like riding a bike.

It will come as no surprise to Safarova (and Steckley) fans that they have marked their reunion with a video.

During their 3 1/2 years together, there were numerous fun, clever videos – sometimes guest-starring Safarova’s friend and doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

This reunion video is probably the first one to feature the use of a drone. Uh oh.

 

Steckley is one of the WTA Tour’s true iconoclasts. And from the beginning of his coaching career, when he worked with the young’uns at Tennis Canada, it was clear his calling was the sometimes mysterious and often challenging job of coaching women.

Soft-spoken, original, and somehow blessed with the ability to soothe and elicit a laugh while still being a top-notch technical coach, he carved out his niche. With Safarova, he was able to calm the Czech’s nerves, help bring her out of her shell a little, and bring out her best tennis along the way.

Parted ways in 2016, stayed friends

But by the 2016 US Open, Safarova had been dealing with illness and injuries and seemed on the verge of either retiring, or becoming a doubles specialist. The motivation had waned, and Steckley had a lot of good reasons to stick to the home front, with a young family.

So they parted ways.

In the interim, it wasn’t as though Steckley didn’t have offers. One feature of the women’s Tour is the fact that once a coach has had success with one top player, he’s going to be sought after when other players are looking for coaches.

You only have to look at the current off-season to see evidence of that.

The 37-year-old was approached by numerous players.

But if there’s another thing that marks the women’s Tour, it’s a general unwillingness to pay the going rate for a top coach – and there are precious few who fit that description.

There are exceptions, of course. But it happens more often than you would think, often with the players who have heavy family involvement and seem unwilling to invest in their careers outside that bubble.

Steckley knew his value. From home in Toronto, with occasional stints on the road, he worked with some of the Canadian players including Charlotte Robillard-Millette and young prospect Layne Sleeth.

After finishing the 2015 season at No. 9, Safarova was hospitalized at the end of the year with a viral illness. By the end of 2016, she was down to No. 62.

The Czech lefty’s ranking recovered some in 2017, hovering between No. 28 and No. 40. She ended the season at No. 30.

For much of the year, she was coached by Frantisek Cermak. 

A new start in 2018

The combined Safarova/Mattek-Sands support squad celebrate Team Bucie’s Australian Open women’s doubles title in 2015. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Steckley’s return to Safarova’s side, hopefully signals a return of the motivation and desire she needs to maximize her ability once again.

And it appears partner Mattek-Sands, who was sidelined for the year after a horrific knee injury at Wimbledon, is also on the way back.

So things already appear to be looking up in 2018.

 

WTA Tour announces 2017 awards

If there’s one thing about the WTA’s annual awards, it’s that they’re consistent.

Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Acapulco have once again proved most popular with the players in 2017.

The three events – in the Premier Mandatory, Premier and International categories, respectively, have won the “Tournament of the Year” awards, as voted on by the players, for the fourth consecutive year.

In the “Premier 5” category (which includes Canada, Cincinnati, Wuhan, and Doha/Dubai on a rotating basis), the winner was the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, which also won in 2016.

Czech sweep

On the off-court side, the Czechs cleaned up.

The Peachy Kellmayer Player Service Award went to Lucie Safarova for the fourth straight year.

Notably, Safarova has served on the Player Council since 2009.

The Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship award – once again – went to Petra Kvitova.

Kvitova has won it six of the last seven years. 

“I know I have won this award several times, but this year is extra special for me because I missed the first half of the season,” Kvitova said in a statement. “We are fighters, we are opponents, but on the other hand we are colleagues as well. So for me, the biggest thing is respect.”

Halep to try again for top ranking

Will Simona Halep be third time lucky on Sunday?

Already this year, the 25-year-old Romanian has had two opportunities to reach the elusive No. 1 singles ranking on the WTA Tour. But she couldn’t get it done.

If she defeats Garbiñe Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, she’ll finally do it.

“It’s the third time. It is either lucky or is just an experience again. So we will see,” Halep said after defeating wild card Sloane Stephens in the semifinal Saturday.

At the French Open, just a few games away from defeating unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the final and taking over top spot, she faltered. At Wimbledon, she was just two points away against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. But she faltered again.

Surprisingly, Halep and Muguruza have not met in more than two years, since Stuttgart, on indoor clay in 2015.

“I want to win it. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get it, it’s going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends on anyone,” she told the media in Cincinnati. “But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see.”

Fresh slate at the top

If Halep gets it done, it will complete an astonishing – and likely unprecedented  – week in which every single one of the No. 1 rankings in tennis will change hands.

Rafael Nadal is assured to be the new No. 1 on the men’s singles side. Finland’s Henri Kontinen will be No. 1 in men’s doubles. And Lucie Safarova will be the new woman atop the women’s doubles ranking on Monday.

Five possibilities, down to one

Karolina Pliskova, taking over for Angelique Kerber, had been No. 1 for the last month.

It certainly seems as though tennis karma is dictating that Halep join the club.

Nadal (last in 2014) and Kontinen (for many weeks this season) have been No. 1 before. For Safarova (and Halep) it will be the first time.

Halep

At the beginning of the week, there were five WTA Tour players with the potential to end up in the top spot, depending on results in Cincinnati.

But a lot of things had to fall into place. Most of the scenarios involved the current No. 1 Pliskova losing early; Halep was the most likely possibility, if Pliskova didn’t hold onto the spot. She basically had to go two rounds further than Pliskova.

The Czech righthander lost in the in the semis to Muguruza. So for Halep, that now means winning the tournament. 

But if she doesn’t, she will find herself just five points behind Pliskova, in the No. 2 spot. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, it surely will happen at the US Open, right?

Halep has quarterfinalist points to defend (430) in New York. But Pliskova lost to Kerber in the final (1,300 points). And the other contenders will continue to have a say.

Kerber is dropping

Speaking of Kerber, who spent 14 weeks at No. 1 this year, she will fall all the way to No. 6 after the Cincinnati tournament. With those 2,000 points for winning the US Open hanging over her ranking, she may fall further.

This, it seems, is what parity looks like.

But for some reason, neither Halep nor Pliskova is getting the same kind of criticism that other former No. 1s – Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Amélie Mauresmo, to name three – received for acceding to the top spot without having a Grand Slam title on their resumé.