At first, 2011 appeared to mark the breakthrough of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova when she reached two major quarterfinals and stood toe to toe with many of the WTA’s leading ladies. The former junior #1 looked likely to become the latest Russian woman to rise in a sport riddled with them over the past decade, blending ferocious groundstrokes from both wings with a keen competitive instinct. Soon afterwards arrived the apparent emergence of Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic. The lanky, enigmatic teenager delivered his “hello, world” moment by soaring from Wimbledon qualifying all the way to the quarterfinals of the main draw, where he won a set from eventual champion Djokovic. Two majors later, Tomic thrilled his home fans by reaching the second week of the Australian Open with electrifying five-set victories over Verdasco and Dolgopolov.
Not entirely concealed by those achievements, however, were the shortcomings in the games of both nascent stars. While Pavlyuchenkova grappled with a serve that leaked too many double faults and untimely service breaks, Tomic struggled less with his body than with an undisciplined mind that too often drifted away from the task at hand. For most of 2012, they not only stagnated but regressed dramatically. The Russian struggled to string together consecutive victories and did not advance past the first week at any major, while she defeated top-30 opponents at only one tournament (Cincinnati). Meanwhile, Tomic combined on-court with off-court embarrassments that ranged from a visibly disinterested loss at the US Open to surly altercations with media and Davis Cup team members. A nation that values hard work and humility, Australia recoiled from the man whom they had prized so recently when he admitted his failures to commit full effort and sounded detached while doing so.
During those demoralizing seasons, then, Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic absorbed a series of bruising blows that might well have left their confidence in tatters. But this week they began 2013 with promising performances that hinted at a revival.
On opposite sides of the Australian continent, the two faltering phenoms delivered victories over players who would have dismissed them with ease last year. At the Premier tournament in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents for the first time in her career, thus improving even upon her success in 2011. Neither Kvitova nor Kerber played convincing tennis for long stretches in those matches, to be sure, but journeywomen of the WTA had not needed to play even average tennis to unravel her during her slump. In those two straight-sets victories, a fitter and generally calmer Pavlyuchenkova found the courage to win crucial points late in sets. The serve that had betrayed her so relentlessly over the past year became an occasional weapon and only a rare liability. Rallying from a dismal first set in a semifinal against lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko, the Russian also showed the maturity to reverse the momentum of a match while shouldering the pressure of a heavy favorite. In view of the field’s overall quality, Brisbane marked arguably her most significant final to date.
Thousands of miles to the west in Perth, Tomic toppled three consecutive top-25 opponents at the Hopman Cup. The experience of playing before the fans whom he had alienated over the preceding months seemed to energize rather than weigh upon him. Crucial to his week was his first match against Tommy Haas, the author of a remarkable resurgence in 2012. Having let a one-set lead slip away, the Aussie quickly dropped the second set and fell behind by an early break in the third, at which point familiar chatter about “Tomic the Tank Engine” reverberated around Twitter. Many onlookers, including me, expected him to fade meekly and lose the set, perhaps by a double break. To the contrary, Tomic stayed within range until Haas served for the match, when edgy play from the German veteran allowed the youngster to sweep the last four games. Galvanized by this comeback, he then notched straight-sets victories over Italian grinder Andreas Seppi, who had compiled the best season of his career last year, and world #1 Djokovic. Granted, the Serb seemed a bit out of tune in that match, and exhibition tournaments rarely elicit A-list tennis from A-list names. As in the case of Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane, however, Tomic deserved credit for capitalizing on an opportunity that would have eluded him last season. And the speed with which his compatriots embraced him again illustrated how easily he can reverse the tide of public opinion that had flowed against him.
A tennis season is a marathon, not a sprint, and one should beware of placing too much emphasis on a single strong week. All the same, plenty of draws would become more intriguing if Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic rediscovered the talents that deserted them in 2012, and they took important steps in that direction during the first week of 2013.