Carrying French hopes

Tennis

Carrying French hopes
Kristina Mladenovic might have been a German tennis star if her father, Dragan, an Olympic gold medalist in team handball for Yugoslavia, had decided to make a move to the German Handball Bundesliga, the top European league, in 1992.

Instead, Dragan chose to leave Serbia to play in the city of Dunkirk in northern France and ended up staying for 12 seasons with his growing family, which added Kristina in 1993.

“It’s true that this could all have turned out very differently,” Kristina Mladenovic said in a recent interview. “It is a coincidence in a way that I was born in France, but I’m delighted.”

With the French Open underway, the French are increasingly delighted, too. At 24, Mladenovic is in the midst of her most convincing season and at a career-high ranking of No. 14 after reaching clay-court finals in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid.

Nicknamed Kiki, she is one of tennis’ big personalities and polyglots (she speaks five languages and understands a sixth), and she has an unexpectedly large opportunity. Though she has yet to get past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam singles tournament, the instability at the top of the women’s game means there is ample room for all manner of childhood dreams to become reality at Roland Garros.

No Frenchwoman has won the French Open since Mary Pierce in 2000. Amélie Mauresmo, who reached No. 1 and was a stellar clay-court player elsewhere, routinely crumpled under the home-Slam pressure. Marion Bartoli, who went on to win Wimbledon in 2013 before retiring, reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011.

Mladenovic has had the singles title in her sights since her early teens, when she was based on the Roland Garros grounds at the French Tennis Federation’s national training center. She lived with her family just a short walk from the world’s most famous clay courts and often prowled the stadium’s passageways and pictured herself playing major matches against players like Serena Williams, whose outfits Mladenovic used to wear — and wear out — when she was a youngster.

Last year, she played Williams for real at Roland Garros, losing, 6-4, 7-6, in a third-round match. But there will be no Serena Williams stopping her short this year, with Williams pregnant and out for the rest of the season. “Of course that changes something,” Mladenovic said. “At this stage, Serena is not a champion. She’s a legend, but I do think the average level of the whole circuit has risen. It’s not because she’s not there or others are not there that it’s going to be easy.”

Mladenovic won the French Open doubles titles last year with Caroline Garcia but held up her first trophy at Roland Garros in 2009 at 16, when she won the girls’ title without dropping a set. She defeated Sloane Stephens and Daria Gavrilova, future top 25 players.

Becoming a genuine contender has taken eight more years. Mladenovic has a big first serve and a penetrating forehand. She has touch, improving variety and some of the better volleys in the women’s game.

Consistency has been an issue. So has mobility, which the 6-foot Mladenovic blames in part on lingering effects of arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in her right knee when she was 13. The injury, she said, was the result of being pushed too hard by an overeager coach at the national training center.

“From 13 to 19, I was playing in pain,” she said. “It didn’t stop me from having a great junior career and reaching No. 1. But I did it all practically on one leg.”

She credits Xavier Moreau, a longtime fitness coach, who has also worked with Mauresmo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with helping her find the right regimen to stay pain free.

She is 27-10 this season, winning the title in St. Petersburg, Russia, and reaching finals in Acapulco, Mexico; Stuttgart; and Madrid and the semifinals in Indian Wells, California. She has victories this season over No. 1 Angelique Kerber, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No 4 Simona Halep and No. 11 Venus Williams.

She has done all this without a coach after splitting with Georges Goven before the season.
For now, she is back to operating without a coach, just as she did in 2015, when she reached the US Open quarterfinals.

“I am really demanding and very much a perfectionist and, most of all, quite independent,” Mladenovic said. “I don’t like to hear the same speeches over and over again. I’m old enough now. I’m not a robot. I’m not going to change technique at age 24. I do have specialists around me,” she continued. “I cannot do the fitness training on my own, the physiotherapy on my own. But when it comes to tennis, I think I’m the person who knows best my strengths and weaknesses.”

Mladenovic is certainly not afraid to make public her lofty tennis goals or to pipe up when others might opt for diplomatic silence. She called the French Tennis Federation “incompetent” after a clothing mix-up and a first-round defeat with Garcia in doubles at last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She and Garcia, with whom she has since split, were later provisionally suspended for their comments.

Since then, Mladenovic has been critical of her fellow French players for skipping the Fed Cup — a group that this year includes Garcia — calling it ungrateful after the French federation has invested so much money in their development.

Mladenovic also was one of the first to criticise Maria Sharapova after her suspension in 2016 for a doping violation (and the first to beat Sharapova after she came back last month).

Before our interview, Mladenovic asked not to discuss Sharapova further, but after the new French Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, declined to give Sharapova a wild-card berth in the French Open, Mladenovic said, “For me, it changes nothing, but it’s good to see that we have a good president, one who has values and who, above all, has character.”

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