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Monday, January 7, 2013
Watch out for Gasquet, Pavlyuchenkova


This past week was a pretty good one for breathing new life into an old or stale career. There was Nikolay Davydenko, a finalist at Doha, the first time he's played for a championship since way back in 2011. And Yanina Wickmayer, who was a finalist at Auckland. She was once on the threshold of the top 10 but fell to No. 23 and didn't win more than one match at any given tournament since Stanford this past summer.

But the most intriguing resurgences of all were those of Richard Gasquet and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova -- two players who once were hailed as great budding talents, but who seemed to have run off the rails.

There's a significant difference between the two: Gasquet is a seasoned 26-year-old who has been up and down and all over the place for most of his career. He's ranked No. 10 but has been has high as No. 7 (in 2007) -- and as low as No. 72. He's won just three titles since his breakout year of 2006, keenly disappointing his French countrymen.

Pavlyuchenkova is just 21, and while the 5-foot-10 Russian with the fluid game and big serve was up as high as No. 13 in 2011, she's slipped to No. 36. She played terribly early last year, and terribly late last year (after a midseason trip to the final of Washington, where she still found a way to lost to No. 102 Magdalena Rybarikova).

By the end of last year, Pavlyuchenkova's personality appeared to be as complicated as her name. She was locking up a reputation as a baffling head case -- kind of like Gasquet in some of those lean times between 2006 and now.

But Gasquet won in Doha this past weekend, despite being down a set and a break against Davydenko, who had not lost his serve during the entire tournament -- until he was two games from the match with Gasquet. The Frenchman found a way to break Davydenko to get back to 4-all in the second set, and eventually won it.

Gasquet closed 2012 with a strong push. He won the title in Bangkok and made the semis in Basel. That helped boost the stylish right-hander into the top 10, but some worried that the veteran Gasquet would take his foot off the gas, as he has so often in the past, and start backsliding. Thus, this win in Doha raises hope that he may finally be at the high level of consistency that has eluded him.

Gasquet might prove to be a dangerous man at the Australian Open because he can hit stone-cold winners from anywhere on the court, and for long periods of time. Roger Federer can tell you all about that -- or just check out the tape of their 2011 match in Rome. Gasquet won it in three excruciatingly close sets, matching Federer backhand for backhand, return for return.

Pavlyuchenkova has had less time to establish that she can beat anyone -- or lose to anyone -- on a given day. Granted, she was blitzed by Serena Williams in the Brisbane final. But merely making it that far again ought to give the big fluid Russian a great jolt of confidence going into the first Grand Slam of the year.

It appears that confidence is something she sorely needs, and while Serena was a pitiless opponent, the fact that she has become pals and practice partners with Pavlyuchenkova can't have hurt the struggling and probably confused youngster. (They trained together in recent weeks at the Mouratoglou offseason training camp in Mauritius.) The workouts paid off, as Pavlyuchenkova knocked off two very dangerous hard-court players in Brisbane -- No. 6 seed and former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and No. 4 Angelique Kerber.

Pavlyuchenkova and Gasquet are both playing Sydney this week (Gasquet is the top ATP seed), which looks like a good-news, bad-news proposition. If they continue to play as they did last week, you can pencil them in as contenders the following week in Melbourne. But you can also pencil them in as two very tired contenders who could become victims of their own success.

I have a feeling either of them would be happy with another final-round appearance, and willing to take their chances going forward from there.