Mladenovic Saves France

By Jane Voigt

May 29, 2017 — Like Jeanne d’Arc, Kristina Mladenovic saved France. Doubtful the six-foot Frenchwoman will be sainted for her efforts, yet her courage, concentration and tenacity were certainly virtuous today. 

S. Williams vs. Mladenovic Roland Garros 05 28 16 LB 00342-2

Kristina ‘Kiki’ Mladenovic brought the house down when she lost in the second round to future finalist Serena Williams in 2016. Hope hung in the air on Court Philippe Chartrier, as the French woman battled to a, 6-4, 7-6(10) loss. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com. 

Seeded number thirteen, with great expectations on her shoulders, Mladenovic took a medical time out three games into the first set. Her back hurt. 

“I pulled my back yesterday and specialists were saying I needed 48 hours. I was almost sure I could not take it to court today,” Mladenovic said, as reported by Reuters. “It [the match] was not the best thing obviously.”

As the match got underway, she was down three games to Jennifer Brady, ranked number 88 in the world. Last year she won her first qualifying match in Paris. This year she was a direct entry, having broken into the top 100. Conditions couldn’t have been better for the American. 

In Brady’s box sat the American heavy weights of women’s tennis. Kathy Rinaldi, Fed Cup Captain. Martin Blackman, the USTA’s general manager for player development. They nodded. Clapped. Encouraged Brady. They knew her chances were high if she could outlast and outplay ‘Kiki.’ They knew that Brady's biggest win of her young career could be hers at day’s end. They also probably knew the obvious … playing an injured opponent could be tougher than any one stroke while serving out a straight-forward match. Brady had to stay on her side of the net, no matter the body gestures coming from Mladenovic. And no matter the support coming from the mainly-French fans. 

The match slowly turned in Mladenovic’s favor, after the pain medication began to kick in in the second set. However, her potent serve wasn’t on although she took advantage of second serves from Brady. And, at times, Mladenovic's mind seemed more focused on pain than points. Errors accumulated in her column. Brady’s confidence grew. 

“I thought I was out of the tournament,” Mladenovic told the press, afterward, as reported by wtatennis.com

Added to this possible derailment were the hopes of France. The last Frenchwoman to win Roland Garros in the Open Era (since 1968) was Mary Pierce in 2000. And the last Frenchwoman to win a Grand Slam was Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon in 2013. Yannick Noah, who was the last French Open winner in 1983, added to the weight on Kiki’s shoulders. 

“She has made a solid start to the season with good results,” Noah said, according to tennisworldusa.org. “She was on the verge of winning two tournaments. She is on the rise, confident and her best days [are] ahead. She is of the four or five possible [winners].”

The Women’s Tennis Association agreed. It picked her as one of five possible players to cross that elusive line that separates normal career titles from a Grand Slam crown. The records show why. 

In 2017 she won her first WTA title in St. Petersburg, which is played on hard courts. But the surface didn’t matter. She transitioned to red clay with grace. Although she lost to Laura Siegemund in the Stuttgart final, she reached the final in Madrid — a Premier Mandatory event on tour — losing a tete-a-tete match to Simona Halep. Last year in Paris Mladenovic was seeded number 26. This year … number 13. 

The combination of home-court advantage and an opponent not quite ready for prime time struck a lucky cord for Mladenovic today, as well. Down 0-3 in the third, she reversed the momentum in fits and starts. 

“The second set gave me a bit more mental strength,” Mladenovic began. “I thought ‘I’m going to fight for this one. We’ll see what’s going to happen in the third set.’ Then I was down 2-0. It was bad game, one of the very last points I wasn’t feeling good at all."

During the set Brady lost her serve five times to Mladenovic’s four times. Then, she broke the American to finish off the match: 3-6, 6-3, 9-7. Three hours had passed. Mladenovic’s relief and gratitude showed.  

“I don’t want to complain but I put my back out,” she told fans inside Court Philippe Chatrier, as tears fell. “I wanted to give myself a chance to win the match and you were really behind me right to the end. Compared to yesterday [my back] is better and I am going to do my best to recover. I will fight to the end.”

Nothing could’ve been sweeter to the ears of France. Here was its hero. A woman ready to stand and fight through pain and projections. 

This good news lessened the disparaging scene on the men’s side. Nine of the 19 Frenchmen in the main draw have lost in the first two days of the fortnight: Wildcard Quentin Halys; 35-year-old Robert Stephane; Benoit Paire; Nicolas Mahut; Wildcard Mathias Bourgue; Adrian Mandarin; Paul-Henri Mathieu playing in probably his last Roland Garros; and Gilles Simone, the number 31 seed; and Julienne Benneteau. 

“We do not have a favorite this year,” Noah added. “But a lot of guys have had a mixed start to the season due to injuries. And it’s a long tournament. Seeing one of the current guys win would be fun. It’s time to turn the page. Meanwhile, time passes and it begins to make long … 34 years is a long time. What the hell are they doing?”

Mladenovic’s schedule should buoy the hopes of France. She won’t have to play until Wednesday or Thursday when she'll meets Sara Errani. With 9 career singles titles, a career Grand Slam in doubles and a finalist in the 2012 French Open, the Italian was forced to qualify this year. Her rank, at number 91, was too low on the cutoff date. Errani can confound the best of the best with her meek serves, uncanny placement and keen strategic mind. Knowing Kiki could still be feeling the effects of a back problem, Errani will make her opponent move. 

“I know I have lots of courage, but I have to say mentally it was extremely difficult for me,” Mladenovic said. 

Like all aspiring players, Mladenovic will have to give more to her game, and to the people of France, as she goes forward. She must, as they say, keep on fighting. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013