French Open 2017: Kristina Mladenovic transforms from doubles champ to serious singles contender
Mladenovic has raised hopes of becoming the first Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce (2000) to win the title at Roland Garros. It’s been an emotional and dramatic ride for her so far.
The setting, for Kristina Mladenovic, was both familiar and unknown. This was the first time she had ever reached the fourth round of the French Open in the women’s singles — her best run at a Grand Slam was a quarter-final finish at the 2015 US Open. But at the same time, just last year, she partnered Caroline Garcia to win the doubles title at Roland Garros.
On Sunday, at the Suzanne Lenglen Court, she was to take on fourth seed and defending champion Garbine Muguruza. And it took Mladenovic three sets, or 119 minutes, to overcome the Spaniard 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
A few hours later, 30th seed Timea Bacsinszky would overcome Venus Williams in three sets, leaving no former Grand Slam champion left to contest for the crown at Roland Garros this year. While the field among the women singles contenders remains open for a player to step up and win her first ever Grand Slam title, Mladenovic has steadily risen as a serious contender.
Formerly a doubles ‘specialist’, Mladenovic is enjoying her best run in singles this season. Even though the game is missing two of its biggest names of the past decade — Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova — the Frenchwoman has shown a rare strain of consistency. She has reached four WTA finals in 2017, winning only in St Petersburg in February.
But her performances in the clay court season have been impressive. At the Stuttgart Open, she ousted World No 1 Angelique Kerber and then stopped Sharapova on her way back into the game after a doping suspension. If it wasn’t for the semi-final loss against Mladenovic, the Russian could have won enough ranking points to guarantee at least a spot in qualifying at the French Open.
Mladenovic then made her first Masters final in Madrid, where she went down to World No 4 Simona Halep in three sets.
Now she has raised hopes of becoming the first Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce (2000) to win the title at Roland Garros. The home crowd's support for ‘Kiki’ is getting more vocal with each hard-fought win in Paris. It’s been an emotional and dramatic ride for Mladenovic so far.
Ahead of her first round clash against America’s Jennifer Brady, she had injured her back during a practice session. It seemed to flare up in the opening round, and has done so occasionally all through the week, as she would nose-dive into a series of unforced errors, before riding on the crowd support to build her morale and battle to victory.
An all-court player, the World No 14 — her best position in the rankings so far — owns a powerful forehand. Yet what gives her the edge over the rest of the field, is her efficiency at the net. Along with her doubles title from last year, Mladenovic won the 2013 Wimbledon and 2014 Australian Open mixed doubles titles partnering veteran Canadian Daniel Nestor. And it’s that same experience of mastering the doubles game that gives her the confidence in approaching the net to kill off points.
In the nerve-racking near-three-hour opener, Mladenovic came out with a 3-6, 6-3, 9-7 win. After a comprehensive win in the second round against Sara Errani, she was in for another 2:46 minute marathon against Shelby Rogers, winning 7-5, 4-6, 8-6. In the third round match, she was down 2-5 in the third set before she fought her way back.
The lengthy matches have seen the Frenchwoman concede 40 double faults on her serve — 16 came in the match against Muguruza alone. But she’s survived, with the back niggles and all. She has ended almost every match in tears, happy tears mostly, but also for the mental and physical effort she has put in to stay alive in her home Grand Slam.
Born in Saint Pol Sur Mer in Northern France, some 300 km away from Stade de Roland Garros, Mladenovic is the elder child of Serbian parents Dragan and Dzenita. Her parents had moved to France back in 1992, when her father, a former Yugoslav handball Olympic gold medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games signed to play professionally for a French club. He wasn’t the only sportsman in the family though, as her mother was a former volleyball player. Her younger brother Luka plays football for lower division team Sarreguemines FC.
Kristina though, is now the face of the Mladenovic family, and for women’s tennis in France. At the French Open she leads a trio of dark horses. While Kerber was the top seed, Muguruza the defending champion and in-form Halep the bookies favourite, Mladenovic, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina were the dangerous floaters and all three remain in contention.
Pliskova started the season with a win at Brisbane, and later at Doha. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Svitolina, with four titles to her name this season, has been the most decorated performer of the year in the women’s field.
Mladenovic has currently booked her spot in the quarters, where she will take on Bacsinszky — a tireless counter-puncher. But the Frenchwoman now knows how to trade blows, even on the elite singles stage.