Rising star: Kristina Mladenovic - born to shine on the sporting stage
Because they are young and brimming with talent, and because their styles of play, careers or simply their natural affinities point to success on clay in general and at Roland-Garros in particular, Rolandgarros.com has picked out 20 rising stars – 10 young women and 10 young men – to keep a close eye on throughout the year. The future (and indeed the present) of French tennis lies squarely in the hands of Kristina Mladenovic, who always manages to raise her game on home soil.
Because at the age of 22, Kristina is one of the most promising players of the 1992-93 generation which is beginning to make waves on the WTA circuit. Ever since she achieved No.1 status by the time she finished her run at junior level at the age of just 16 (and with the 2009 Roland-Garros singles title in her pocket), the Frenchwoman has been reaching for the stars. Despite being held back by injuries and the odd uncertainty regarding her playing style, she has never allowed her belief to be shaken that she was born to be a champion and will one day achieve her lofty ambitions. Mladenovic is convinced that she has great things to accomplish, and no-one can persuade her otherwise.
Conviction is one thing, actual achievement another, and if there is one thing that seems to bring out the very best in Mladenovic, it is performing on the biggest of stages, preferably in front of her home crowd. Put simply, four of her five wins over top 10 players have come in France, two of them indoors at Coubertin stadium in Paris (over Petra Kvitova, No.8 at the time, and Simona Halep, No.10) and two at Roland-Garros - Li Na – world No.2 and reigning Australian Open champion – in 2014, and Eugenie Bouchard, No.6, in 2015. Add to that her two wins over Sara Errani when representing France (one of them on the clay in Genoa in 2015), and a clear picture emerges of a player who saves her best for the big occasion.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Mladenovic will one day hold the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen aloft (though the Coupe Simonne-Mathieu for the women’s doubles is certainly a different kettle of fish…). What is sure, however, is that no opponent will be looking forward to seeing her in their section of the bracket in the first week at the Porte d'Auteuil. Mladenovic has plenty of shots in her armoury and is full of surprises, even on days when she seems to be a little below par. She has pulled off upsets in the past and will do so again in the future. And if one day she manages to add a little more consistency to the mix, then the rest of the WTA circuit had better watch out.
Standing at 1.84m in her stockinged feet, Mladenovic is one of only a few women’s players (along with the Williams sisters, Sabine Lisicki and Karolina Pliskova) capable of serving in excess of 200km/h. This certainly gives her a solid foundation, and with her big hitting from the baseline and crisp volleys honed over many years of doubles action, she likes to dictate play. It is a high-risk style, much like that of her Fed Cup team-mate Caroline Garcia, and one which she sometimes struggles to control. That is the flip side of the coin, but when everything does slot into place, Mladenovic can strike fear into the hearts of any opponent. And she knows it.
She knows her strengths and is clear in her ambitions, never afraid to say what she thinks. This attitude can end up taking a few people by surprise, but it merely shows that she has the temperament of a true champion."Why should I have any doubts? (…) When you’re a pro, winning or not is part and parcel of the job, as a certain Roger Federer puts it! I’m proud of what I do every day and I have nothing to be ashamed of. Hard work pays off. The women winning the big tournaments nowadays are aged 30 rather than 20 (…) so I’ve got time yet! There’s no rush!" she said to the French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe in March 2014. The reference to Federer was also no coincidence. While Kristina admires Gustavo Kuerten very much and is quite close to Novak Djokovic, with whom she shares Serbian origins and who has already passed on advice to her on a number of occasions, the Swiss is the only player of whom she is "really a fan. Him and him alone – he’s exceptional!" Mladenovic is a perfectionist who can easily spend hours ploughing through her opponents’ stats and videos of their style of play – a habit which she has picked up from her father, whom she used to help analyse shooters’ preferences back in the day when he was a handball goalkeeper.
Career to date
Sport has always been part of Mladenovic’s life. Her father Dragan was an Olympic handball champion with Yugoslavia, while her mother Dzenita was a volleyball international. Born on 14 May 1993 at Saint-Pol-sur-Mer in the north of France, Kristina spent her childhood watching her dad play handball for Dunkirk, but tennis was always her favourite sport. She was European individual and team champion as early as 2007 and soon stole a march on other players her age. Her height (she was already 1.75 m at the age of 12) and her strength were great assets, and she began racking up the victories until she became world junior champion in 2009 at the age of just 16, bagging the French Open girls’ singles title into the bargain (photo).
The step up from the juniors to the WTA circuit saw her dizzying progress slow down a little, but even though she struggled with injuries to her wrist and knee, she never lost sight of her objectives and gradually made her way up the rankings, making the most of her doubles appearances to regain fitness and improve her overall game. Winning 12 women’s doubles titles and performing well at the Grand Slams, where she has two mixed doubles titles to her name (Wimbledon 2013 and the Australian Open 2014) as well as a women’s doubles final (Wimbledon 2014), has given her experience and also enabled her to become very strong at the net. She lacked consistency up until recently, being as high as No.36 in the world in 2013, only to slip down to No.81 in 2014 then bounce back up to No.29 in 2015. Last season however, she added some consistency to her game and also qualified for her maiden final on the pro circuit in Strasbourg, and came within a whisker of reaching the semi-finals of the US Open, falling 6-4 to Roberta Vinci in the third set.
What can we expect from her this year?
Having grown up surrounded by team sports, Kristina Mladenovic is always keen to be on court as much, if not more, than the next player. As well as playing singles – of course – and doubles (with a title in Charleston to her name already this season), she is a lynchpin of the France team which has made it through to the final of the Fed Cup. She won a live singles rubber against none other than Sara Errani in the first round as well as the deciding doubles against the Dutch in the semis. The final will not be played until the autumn, but the next big date on the calendar for the French No.1 is of course a return to Roland-Garros.