In a heated debate between parent and child, many a tiger mother has resorted to an ominous prediction in her rhetoric: “Wait until you have children; then you will understand.” It is a common adage heard in American households, but it feels strangely applicable as former champion Martina Hingis begins the European clay court swing, not as a player, but as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s new coach.
Ostensibly an odd pairing, there has been little in the young Russian’s career to make one draw comparisons to the “Swiss Miss.” Where Hingis arguably peaked before age 20, Pavlyuchenkova’s career has been defined by fits and starts; her 2013 resumé alone boasts two titles, one final and a whopping seven opening round losses. From the age of two, the five-time Slam champion was coached almost exclusively by her mother, Melanie Molitor, a former player from the Czech Republic who had named her daughter after national hero, Martina Navratilova.
By contrast, Pavlyuchenkova has gone through a bevy of coaching situations in the constant effort to tweak her game to be more reliable. In the last year, she finally returned to the Mouratoglou Academy (home to Serena Williams, Jeremy Chardy, and Yulia Putintseva), and cemented her partnership with Academy coach Hingis last week during the International event in Oeiras.
Even on a fundamental level, Pavlyuchenkova represents much of what drove Hingis from the top of the sport in the early 2000s. The Swiss superstar relied on guile and cunning to beat bigger, stronger opponents on a weekly basis, but even that was often not enough to compensate for her underpowered game. Pavlyuchenkova? She has enough stored-up power to keep the lights on at any stadium she plays. She may as well consider “tactics” a four letter word, as all of her biggest victories were moments when she bashed down the door with relentless efficiency. Ten years ago, that might have been enough to take the Russian to several Slam titles already.
But today, the most successful players combine brains and brawn, and those who rely too heavily on one or the other find themselves flattened by more complete players.
On some level, Hingis must feel relieved that, to a certain degree, that which Pavlyuchenkova lacks can be taught. As she herself learned the hard way, height and strength is not something one can glean from a couple of days on the practice court. But the two do appear to share a certain stubbornness that might make this arrangement more trouble than it’s worth.
From a pundit’s perspective, it looked like there was plenty Hingis could have done to compete with the changing Tour, from developing a faster serve, to ending her mother/coach relationship and improving her perceived lack of superhuman fitness. But as Hingis infamously said, she was a “player, not a worker.” She was content to make the best of her natural gifts and use them to hide her weaknesses for as long as she could.
Pavlyuchenkova, too, has sometimes bristled at the idea of improving. Despite lacking much of Hingis’s immediate Tour success, the Russian seemed in no rush to build on her emphatic run to the 2009 Indian Wells semifinals, and while she has made two Slam quarterfinals since then, her ranking has stalled outside the top 10, and both her fitness and consistency have left much to be desired.
Though she may blanch at the notion, Martina has become her mother. Once a player, she is now forced as coach to watch from the stands and hope that her charge is employing the techniques they discussed in practice. But after playing nearly two decades one way, how quickly will Pavlyuchenkova be able to find the balance between “brainless ballbasher” and “technical tactician?” How many matches is she willing to lose playing the right way instead of winning playing the wrong way? At least neither have to deal with the all-too-complex parent/child dynamic.
After all, Pavlyuchenkova’s coach isn’t “mom,” she’s “Martina Hingis.”