Matt Zemek

The great players get rare chances to accomplish specific feats, such as a Grand Slam, but they get copious chances to win majors.

Players a level lower than the great ones do not receive the same amount of portals to tennis immortality.

At age 24, Kristina “Kiki” Mladenovic owns a career which is far from finished. Yet, with the growing depth and quality on the WTA Tour, one can very reasonably make the case that Kiki will have a very difficult time winning a major title in the next few years, which coincide with the physical prime of a young athlete, the mid-20s.

As written about earlier this month at Tennis With An Accent, the amount of legitimate championship contenders on the WTA Tour is substantial. This is no longer a tour in which it is Serena and a group of moderately good chasers, with one getting hot at the right time. This is becoming a tour in which 10 or 12 players all have championship-level chops and could very realistically climb over each other to get to the top.

A quick review: Halep and Wozniacki proved themselves in Australia. Venus is still winning lots of matches and going deep into important tournaments. Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens resurfaced in Miami. Angelique Kerber is a factor. Daria Kasatkina has announced her presence this year. Victoria Azarenka shows signs of bouncing back. Karolina Pliskova is still good enough to make quarterfinals, which means she is hardly removed from the title discussion at important events. Garbine Muguruza can flip the switch, as the whole tour knows. Petra Kvitova is always dangerous. Oh, and what if Serena gets back into form? This is a very, very deep tour right now. 

Mladenovic has her work cut out for her. For this reason, she enters the clay season needing to restore a higher trajectory to her career.

One central challenge for the Frenchwoman relates to the beginning of this piece, which mentioned the paucity of chances players receive to win majors if they are not part of the sport’s elite. Great players get more opportunities, but merely good players — which is generally what Mladenovic’s resume indicates to this point in time — can’t bank on such chances with the same regularity.

That chance might have been last year at Roland Garros.

Mladenovic was a survivor, overcoming late-stage deficits to wiggle out of trouble and beat both Jennifer Brady and Shelby Rogers against the run of play. She then defeated the defending RG champion, Garbine Muguruza, in the fourth round. Muguruza was visibly affected by taunts and insults from the French crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen, but Mladenovic couldn’t do much about that. She successfully rode the wave of a home crowd into the quarterfinals for a meeting with previous French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky. Mladenovic didn’t have to deal with Muguruza’s power or the fact that a major champion was standing across from her. This was as reasonable a path as she could have imagined to make a Roland Garros final (Ostapenko would have been next in the semis) and play for a piece of French tennis history.

Yet, in an uneven match, Mladenovic became the less consistent player at the end of each set. Bacsinszky earned a hard-fought 6-4, 6-4 win, dashing Kiki’s aspirations and French hopes, which had both grown so big in a week and a half in Paris.

Coming to terms with that loss — if she hasn’t done so already — might be what Mladenovic needs to kick-start her 2018 on crushed red brick. 

Mladenovic’s run to the 2017 Roland Garros quarters was preceded by a dash to the Madrid final, when Halep defeated her in three sets. Mladenovic’s tennis in Paris was not an isolated demonstration of quality — it was the latest product of a meaningful clay season. The fact that she had done so much work leading into Paris made the loss against Bacsinszky sting more.

Now, Kiki will try to find a way to turn one year’s clay sting into this year’s clay redemption tour. Mladenovic will need to do well not only to boost her chances to win big tournaments — chances which are not likely to be copious in 2018 — but to maintain the rankings points she accumulated on clay in 2017.

This is not a tennis player whose clock is ticking — that’s for players in their late 20s and older. Nevertheless, after last year’s Parisian sorrow followed by the injury at Wimbledon which derailed the rest of her season, a return to clay marks the ideal time for Mladenovic to rebuild her house… a house made of terre battue.


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