May 18, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

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).

Pavlyuchenkova

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.

Pavlyuchenkova

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.

Pavlyuchenkova

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.

Pavlyuchenkova

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.

Pavlyuchenkova

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)

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