Kristina Mladenovic - Kiki gets physical
As she approaches her 24th birthday, Kristina Mladenovic is enjoying the best season of her career. She currently sits at No.14 in the world, and No.4 in the Race to Singapore. And what is the secret of her success? Simple. "Kiki" has always had lofty ambitions, but she has now "a new physical dimension".
Exactly how far can Kristina Mladenovic go? If you ask her that question, you will get the same reply that she has been giving for over a decade. Even before 2009, when she won Roland-Garros juniors – without dropping a set along the way – and rose to No.1 in the world in her age group, the answer has always been "number one". For as long as she and her entourage can remember, Mladenovic has stated her avowed intent to occupy top spot on the pro tour as well. Those on the circuit can still picture her in the Philippe-Chatrier locker rooms after posing for Roland-Garros Magazine, telling them of her goals without trying to hide behind fake humility. She was already sure of herself, even at a tender age.
While some people interpreted what she said, and has repeated on regular occasions ever since, as big-headedness, hubris or adolescent vanity that would soon be shot down on the pro circuit, her results over recent months have set about proving that Kiki does not make promises that she cannot keep. She likes to back them up – in the form of statistics.
For the Mladenovic family, top-level sport is a way of life. Father Dragan was a professional handball player, mother Dzenita a volleyball player and her little brother Luka plays football. For them, it is not so much a case of "follow your dreams" as "put the work in to make your dreams a reality".
2009 juniors Roland-Garros champ
"An exemplary leadership"
With the first half of the season coming to a close and the European clay swing heading into the home straight as Roland-Garros approaches, the 24-year-old from Saint-Pol-sur-Mer in the north of France has reached the highest ranking of her (fledgling) career, at No.14 in the world. The Race to Singapore is even more impressive – Kristina is currently the fourth best player in this calendar year after two excellent weeks on clay, in Stuttgart, where she made the final, dropping an agonising third-set tie-breaker to Laura Siegemund after seeing off Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Angelique Kerber, Carla Suarez Navarro and Maria Sharapova, then in Madrid where she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semi-finals, before a three-set thriller against Simona Halep. She lost, but "I am delighted," said Kiki. This success came hot on the heels of a triumphant Fed Cup weekend against Spain, and "If you’d told me after I got here exhausted after the Fed Cup that I’d make the final and that I’d play all those incredible matches, after I sprained my ankle when I fell on court, I wouldn’t have believed you. I even considered pulling out!"
And yet she does believe, and this is one of the keys to her current run of success that has been going on for far longer than the past two weeks. Over the last six months, in fact, since the beginning of the year, when the French No.1 started racking up the wins and the ranking points. Her Hopman Cup win alongside Richard Gasquet was the symbolic start to her winning streak. She lifted the trophy in St Petersburg (at a WTA Premier tournament, no less!), then made the final in Acapulco and the semis in Indian Wells. And of course, we should not forget her "exemplary leadership", to quote captain Yannick Noah, at the head of the French Fed Cup team. Little by little, Mladenovic has been putting together the pieces of the puzzle in singles, after establishing herself as a big name in doubles already a number of years ago. But why the success now – is it just the way the calendar is set out? No – it is the fruit of Mladenovic’s labours, particularly on the strength and conditioning side of things.
"Building up confidence"
Having suffered a setback after her junior success due to a serious knee injury, Kiki realised very early on that there is no substitute for doing everything you can to improve physically. For the past four years, she has focused on this aspect of the game, but as long as her knee was preventing her from doing the necessary work, she was unable to make the most of the specific training that she was having. She ended up a way behind where she was meant to be physically, but now that her body is holding up, she is making astounding progress. Last year, the difference was already clear for anyone to see in her lower body and on-court movement. Over the winter before the new season started, she pushed herself further under the tutelage of Xavier Moreau, who was Amélie Mauresmo’s fitness coach in her heyday as well as getting Mary Pierce back to her very best in the mid-2000s. Together, they did interval training, weights (her Fed Cup team-mates were amazed to see her lifting 130 kg in the gym in Roanne!), and went outside in the cold on a slippery running track, pushing herself to the limit to the point of almost throwing up. "I’ve made huge progress," she says, before adding, in typical "Kiki" style, "if you’re ambitious, you aim for excellence and that is what I’m doing."
Anyone who has spent any time with "Kiki" will know that ambition is what drives her, and she is happy to put in the hours outside of tournaments. As Pierre Cherret, part of the French Fed Cup staff, explained to the FFT’s website at the recent Spain tie, being at peak fitness has direct implications, beyond her on-court game, her movement and the "new physical dimension that she has. It also affects the mental side, because she knows that she can hold her own physically, that she has more stability, speed and stamina, so that gives her more confidence." In other words, the more confidence Mladenovic has, the more confidence she gets. And with Roland-Garros just around the corner – a place where she has won both the juniors’ singles and the women’s doubles (in 2016 with Caroline Garcia) – that can only be good news.