Back in action at the Challenge Elite FFT, which is now under way on the Côte d'Azur, Kristina Mladenovic spoke to rolandgarros.com about the recent long layoff she and her fellow professionals have been through. Giving an off-the-cuff interview, the French No. 1 discussed her high hopes for the months ahead, with sights firmly set on Roland-Garros.
Kristina Mladenovic: It’s all about being patient and positive!
Kristina Mladenovic gives her views on what has been a difficult few months for the world’s professional sportspeople.
Kristina, tell us how the last four months have been for you...
Like everyone, it was a really weird time for me. Lockdown seemed to be very long but quick at the same time. I didn’t have access to a tennis court for two whole months. It was really tough because tennis is my job and my passion too. The hardest thing was saying to myself, ‘Damn! I should have been playing in Rome, Madrid or Roland-Garros this week’. I missed all those big events, more so than the need to hit a tennis ball or the simple pleasure of playing, though I missed that too as the weeks went by.
I didn’t find it hard to come to terms with the situation though. My family and I quickly understood that it was a totally unprecedented time in our lives. It goes without saying that we’d never had such a long layoff in tennis, but there’s nothing you can do when you have a pandemic like this. The danger was real and tennis was not the priority. It would have been really selfish to complain about it because everyone’s health was at stake. We just had to focus on essential things, which are different to the things that matter when you have a career in professional sport, and stay positive.
So how did your lockdown go?
I was lucky enough to spend it with my family in a big house. And what was pretty amazing for me was that I didn’t set foot outside once. I had my equipment, a treadmill, a bike and my own space to use. I did sport every day. I did some big sessions day in day out, following a specific programme. I just did cardio work and made sure I stayed in shape.
I’m pleased I stuck at it day after day. It wasn’t easy in the circumstances but it really helped me when it came to start playing again, at least from a physical standpoint, and it ensured I wasn’t out of condition [smiles]. As for getting back into tennis and hitting the ball, I just eased my way back and took it easy on my joints and my [right] shoulder. Those are the areas that really suffer when you’re playing and it’s tough after such a long layoff.
Did you find anything new to occupy your time?
Yes. Like a lot of people, I found some new things to take an interest in, which was the good thing about it all. As tennis players, we’re always complaining about having to travel a lot and going from one hotel room to another without ever spending time at home. But I’ve just slept for two whole months in my own bed and I’ve spent time with my family too. We’ve played board games and I’ve been in one place the whole time. I’ve also had a go at some new things that are pretty time-intensive, like cooking.
I started out helping my family. We’ve got a lot of good cooks and there are quite a few too in the other family we spent lockdown with. Then I had the challenge of cooking dinner all by myself for nine people. I did scallops with a rice and coconut sauce and roast carrots. It was pretty exotic and it was good too. I was proud of myself [laughs]. It was my big lockdown success story.
I read a lot too, of course, and watched some series. I also taught English and Spanish to a girl from another family who’s in her final year at school. I went through the whole syllabus for the year and we did one lesson in one language and the next in the other. That was another objective I set myself and she was very happy with the progress she made and with her results. I was delighted and really happy for her.
I’m just pleased I was able to help her out. It was great fun and we really got on. We also shared all the housework. My brother [Luka] and his girlfriend did the shopping once a week. That was their big job on Tuesdays [smiles]. We asked them, ‘So what’s life like out in the street?’. It was a bit like being in a film. But we all followed the health regulations to the letter, which was the important thing. On a personal level, I’ve always tried hard to do healthy things, to lead a healthy life through what I eat and in other ways too. Sticking to those rules was a no-brainer for me.
Changing subject now, if you’re Instagram account is anything to go by, you’re pretty committed to protecting the environment and the oceans.
Yes, protecting the oceans, recycling waste, plastic… They’re all things that I care about and I’m convinced that the effort we make as individuals and the things that we do can have a positive impact on the bigger picture. I think the sea and the oceans are wonderful yet fragile at the same time. When I go on holiday I prefer being in contact with the sea than being in the mountains. I’ve never been skiing for example. Seeing waste in the sea just makes me sad.
I’ve also seen on Instagram that you’ve taken up golf. Do you enjoy it?
Golf was one of the first sports to come out of lockdown so it was a chance to try it out, especially as my brother is a big fan too. I love it! I have to say I’m still pretty rubbish at it though. There’s something about the sport that just seems to appeal to us tennis players. I think it’s fantastic to be out on the course. You’re playing against yourself and often in absolutely beautiful surroundings. And when there are a few of you playing, you can have a fun time together. I hope I can work on my game and my swing in the future [smiles].
And how does it feel to be back playing tennis?
It feels like I haven’t been away! Umm… really tough [laughs]! I’ve done what I had to do to stay toned and in shape and I’ve just tried to get my body and shoulder slowly going again. I had my first hits on 13 May at my club, at Lagardère Racing. It was on clay because it’s less stressful on the body. Hitting a tennis ball is like cycling and swimming; you don’t forget it. I just hit for 30 minutes on the first day, though, middle of the racquet, gently, without trying to hit it too hard.
I gradually stepped up the intensity, especially with the serve, where your shoulder really comes into it. I was so happy to start playing again that I wanted to go flat out pretty much straightaway. I had to be sensible, though, and I’ve taken things gradually and gently.
We’re on the Côte d'Azur for the Challenge Elite FFT. It’s not a big tour event but how do you feel about being able to compete again?
There’s nothing better than playing competitively. It’s so great to be back playing matches again, matches that matter in one way or another. I love the fact that we’re back playing and trying to beat each other. It’s much better than training sets. It’s official here and there’s an umpire in the chair. It’s the perfect competition for dipping your toe in the water again.
It’s not easy to get started again and I don’t have any expectations about how well I’m going to play. I’m just aiming to get back in that competitive groove again, to experience how it feels, the emotions of playing break and set points, though I don’t have any expectations in terms of results. And it’s not quite like playing on the tour because there are no spectators and no ball boys and girls, which can sometimes create a false rhythm when you’re playing.
I’m not making excuses though. We’re all delighted to be here. I want to thank the French Tennis Federation for setting everything up for us. This is what we all expected to find when we came here and it’s helped us to get back into what we do. I know the road is long and that this is just the start. I’ve come here feeling calm and with my feet firmly on the ground. I want to give myself some time.
How much are you looking forward to playing in some big tournaments again in the coming weeks, Roland-Garros among them?
When you’re a competitor, that’s what you live for. They’re even hoping to have crowds at Roland, which is very motivating. I never thought for a second that everything would be cancelled in 2020. There is still a lot of uncertainty on the health front, of course, and tennis is a sport that goes from venue to venue, with players who come from all over the world. But the feeling I get here in Nice is that it’s the start of something. It’s all about being patient and positive. Those are the two key words for me right now.
Can you picture yourself on the Court Philippe-Chatrier in October?
Yes. After everything we’ve been through, that’s something I really want to believe. And that’s why I’ve been working every day during lockdown. In a few months’ time I could be there at Roland playing an important and exciting match. It’s a nice thing to think about and it makes me want to get out there. But even now that desire to be on court and the joy I get from it are real. It shows me how much I love tennis.