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.

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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.

Tennis Birthdays – Feb. 16, 2019

(Editor’s note: We’ve received a lot of requests from followers of my Open Court website to bring back the tennis birthdays feature. So as of today – here it is!) 

John McEnroe (USA), 60

If you’re a longtime tennis fan, it’s hard to even process the fact that “Super Brat” is hitting the big 6-0 today.

He hasn’t mellowed much with age. But he has, with time, developed more of an appreciation of both women’s tennis and the “journeymen” of the Tour (McEnroe used to basically consider anyone outside the top 20 a “journeyman’; he’s since expanded that definition).

The New Yorker remains a big figure in the sport, even though his playing time on the Champions Tour ended with a final appearance (in doubles) at Royal Albert Hall last December. He played singles far longer than any of his contemporaries, as it was. And, competitive as ever, he more than held his own.

McEnroe teamed up with brother Patrick to play the Legends event at the Australian Open this year, and they went 3-0 in their matches.

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His forays into the coaching world have, perhaps surprisingly, not really been lasting. After coveting the U.S. Davis Cup captain’s job for years, he finally got it. And then he found out it wasn’t quite what he bargained for.

In the summer of 2016, he worked alongside Carlos Moyá, and helped get Canadian Milos Raonic to the Wimbledon final. But that, too, was a fairly short-term thing.

He works for ESPN, and the BBC, and for Channel 9 in Australia. And for Eurosport. So he’s everywhere.

During the Australian Open, McEnroe threatened to join Twitter when he turned 60. If that happens, it could be … something.

Robert Steckley (CAN), 39

Steckley played Davis Cup for Canada in 2005-06, after being one of the country’s best juniors. As a pro, he didn’t break through. He reached No. 464 in singles and No. 610 in doubles.

But he is carving out a nice career for himself as a coach.

He joined Team Shapovalov last fall, and continues on in that role this season as his 19-year-old countryman continues to rise in the rankings and improve his game.

Communication, creativity keys to Shapo-Steckley association

Before that, Steckley made his name on the WTA Tour.

It started with Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak a decade ago. It went really well  for awhile; she won her only career title, in Stanford, while he was on board.  He then was a hitting partner for another Canadian, Heidi El Tabakh (now the Canadian Fed Cup captain).

After that, in Vancouver in the summer of 2010, he hooked up with Sania Mirza of India, when she was still playing singles. And then, he coached Romanian Edina Gallovits-Hall, an Atlanta-based player who ended up having Tommy John surgery on her shoulder

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Steckley’s long association with Safarova began for a few weeks in the summer of 2012, when he was filling in for her coach, Biljana Veselinovic. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

In 2012, he spent some time with top Czech player Lucie Safarova, who was in need of someone for the summer U.S. swing as her coach Biljana Veselinovic was tending to some matters at home. And by the 2014 Australian Open, he was her full-time coach.

Safarova got to career highs in singles (No. 5) and doubles (No. 4) after the 2015 US Open, and reached the French Open singles final 

Carina Witthoeft (GER), 24

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Witthoeft won her first career WTA Tour title in Luxembourg at the end of the 2017 season.

And she jumped into the top 50, at No. 48, at the beginning of the 2018 season.

The season didn’t go as planned, after she qualified and won a round at the big event in Stuttgart. She lost in the first round in nine of her next 10 tournaments, through August.

And she lost four more first rounds to close out her season – including in the first round of Luxembourg to Vera Lapko, where she was defending her title.

So far in 2019, she has played just one match. Witthoeft retired down 1-5 in the first set of her first-round qualifying effort against Conny Perrin at the Australian Open.

In fact, she was fined $5,500 under the new rules that penalize players who show up for Slams without being 100 per cent fit.

At the moment, she’s down at No. 185, a combination of loss of confidence and form.

Sofia Arvidsson (SWE), 35

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Arvidsson was a very hard hitter who never really quite broke through to the level of that ability. She was especially effective on the faster courts.

The Swede peaked at No. 12 in the junior rankings back in 2001, after a successful campaign in Australia that included semifinals in the two warmup events (losing to Marion Bartoli and Svetlana Kuznetsova) and the junior girls’ singles final at the Australian Open (losing to Jelena Jankovic).

As you can see, she was competing against a pretty solid class of juniors.

Arvidsson ended up a solid pro, but not a star to the level of the players mentioned above. She won two singles titles in her career – both in Memphis, in 2006 and 2012.

But she finished ranked in the top 70 for nine straight years from 2005 to 2013. She also represented her country in Fed Cup for 14 years, and played in two Olympics.

Arvidsson’s career high of No. 29 came in May, 2006.

She retired at the end of 2015, and quickly moved into television commentary back home in Sweden.

Last November, she announced that she had been named the tournament director of a new WTA 125K event in Bastad, Sweden. It’s a clay-court event that takes place during the second week of Wimbledon.