State of a Nation

Saturday, August 31, 2013 /by

NEW YORK—“That light is really scary,” Alison Riske says as she sits down in the main interview room inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The 23-year-old Pittsburgh native, who rolled over No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova today in stunningly easy fashion, is making her debut in a place typically reserved for the Rafas and Serenas of the world. Despite her fear of the big light shining in her eyes, though, Riske doesn’t seem intimidated. Unlike most of the players who trudge in and out of this room all day, she appears to be enjoying herself. She seems, in fact, to be in her brassy element.

Asked who the best player in the history of her hometown is, she says, “I’d like to think I’m up there.”

Asked if she still plays tennis with her siblings (Riske has an older sister and younger brother), she says, “I like to take my sister out there just so I can beat her up a little bit.” She pauses a beat and smiles: “Just kidding.”

Asked how it feels to be in the big interview room, she says, “Oh, it’s really cool, it’s really neat. It’s nice that there are more than two people here.”

Based on those answers, it probably won’t surprise you that, whatever her skills are as a player, Riske is an exemplary tweeter. Here’s what she wrote on Twitter today after she beat Kvitova, a former Wimbledon champion, to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open: “This sweet 16 may be even better than my sweet 16 pool party.”

So how good is Riske when she goes off line and on court? Kvitova was suffering with a fever today—that’s the sixth time in the last two years that Petra has been hit by an illness—so Riske’s 6-3, 6-0 win should be taken with a couple grains of salt. But she has been improving all season, since hooking back up with a former coach of hers, Yves Boulais, and beginning to train at a USTA center in College Park, Md., six months ago. Riske's ranking has gone from No. 179 at the start of the year to a career-high No. 81, a number that’s sure to go higher when the Open is over. 

“There were definitely times of doubt,” Riske said today. “It’s really tough out here [on tour]. Every week isn’t like this. My team was so supportive and pushed me through. I’m definitely in a better place."

Riske’s breakthrough came in June, on grass in Birmingham, where she reached the final. She had also done well at the same tournament in the past; if her run at the Open proves anything, it's that she's at least not just a Birmingham specialist.

Tennis runs in the Riske family. Her father, a retired former member of the secret service and FBI investigator—he obviously has the perfect last name for his jobs—taught all of his kids to play. “Once I came along,” Alison joked today, “I didn’t have a choice. He kind of forced it upon me. But I grew to love it.” Riske’s signature shot is a long two-handed backhand—when she finishes it, her grunt sometimes sounds like she’s asking, “Whyyyyy?” 

Right now, Riske knows the answer. She’s in the final 16 of the U.S. Open, and with Daniela Hantuchova up next, she might be going farther.

*****

There are familiar stages to every successful tennis player’s career: Alison Riske is rising, Roger Federer is aging, James Blake is retiring. But what is Christina McHale doing at the moment? 

She had her own rise, up to to No. 24 last season, but this year the New Jersey native took a serious fall, all the way down to No. 114. McHale contracted mononucleosis late in 2012, and left the USTA to return to her childhood coaches in New Jersey. After going 11-19 for the season and losing in the first round of the qualifying in Toronto and Cincinnati, McHale went back to the USTA.

Whether it was a new coaching voice in her ear, or a return to native tri-state turf, this has been a good week for McHale. She toughed out two matches in the Grandstand, and stood poised to beat Ana Ivanovic in Arthur Ashe Stadium today. It appears that McHale, while still only 21 (she's two years younger than Riske), may be ready to start a second rise.

She won’t climb any farther at the Open. McHale served for the match against Ivanovic at 5-4 in the second set, but was broken and ended up losing in three sets. Credit Ana for stepping forward with a series of big returns when she needed them in that crucial 5-4 game.

“I’m stlll thinking about what I could have done differently,” McHale said later. “I think I just need more experience in this stage of a Slam.” She regretted one serve that she hit in that game, which Ivanovic belted for a winner. “I mean, it was just sitting there,” McHale said. 

Even in defeat today, McHale reminded us of how she got to No. 24: The forehand was still a bullet, and she was still a steady mental presence—even if she did, as she said, “get a little passive” when she should have been bold. 

McHale summed her current state up this way: “After some of the losses I’ve had this year,” she said, “even though today it hurts to lose this type of close match, I feel much better about my game.”

Maybe that’s where McHale is now in her career: Not falling anymore, but not yet rising. She’s 21, ready to start again.

*****

Sloane-Serena, Labor Day Weekend, Ashe Stadium, CBS: From the day that Stephens beat Williams at the Australia Open in February, and then beat her up some more in the press this spring, this match has been destiny. 

So let’s start with what’s important: Do the non-mentor (Serena) and her non-protégé (Sloane) like each other?

“For me, she’s a great girl,” Serena said when she was tracked down in the gym at 1:00 A.M. after her third-round win on Friday night. “She’s good for tennis as well.”

Sloane? She was slightly less generous: “Obviously, we’re co-workers,” she said. Have you ever used that phrase to describe your relationship with someone? If so, I’m guessing you were something less than tight with that person. 

Sloane should have known she wasn’t going to get away with a line so bland. After all, we need to know how she feels “in her heart,” as one reporter put it, about a woman she barely knows.

“Love her,” Stephens finally said of Serena, then gave a deeply emotional recitation of Serena’s virtues. “She’s a great competitor, one of the best players to play the game. Like I said, co-worker, [Fed Cup] teammate. I mean, that’s it.”

Sloane knows how to be chilly, but she still has a lot to learn from Serena in that department. Asked about Stephens and their upcoming match, Williams fired this icy dagger across the net:

“She really has nothing to lose," Serena said, "and she excels in situations like that.” 

Ouch—I think that qualifies as a two-handed backhand compliment.

It's safe to say that these two women aren’t going to be friends anytime soon, and no one should expect them to be. Serena is as competitive with everyone on tour as she ever was—she plays no favorites in that department. But what about the on-court matchup? What should we expect on Sunday afternoon?

“I definitely don’t feel like I’m going in there as a favorite,” Williams said, “because she’s playing great, even though I’m playing good, too.”

Ignore the “I’m a pretty good player, too,” mind games buried in that statement for a second. It's clear that Serena has been paying attention to Sloane’s progress, because she’s right, the younger woman is playing well. Since struggling with nerves in her first round, which she found a way to win in a third-set tiebreaker against Mandy Minella, Sloane has come up with the loosest, most aggressive, and most consistent tennis I’ve seen her play in 2013. It’s been nice to see her leave the passive and unhappy version of herself behind and show what she can do with a tennis ball. She has that easy pop that no one can teach.

Of course, Serena has even more of it, and as she said, she’s hasn’t been chopped liver at the Open so far, either—she’s dropped eight games in her three matches. She and Sloane have faced each other twice in 2013, both times in Australia at the start of the year, and they split those matches. After winning the first set in Melbourne, Serena hurt herself in the second set and never recovered. Injury aside, though, she was nervous that day, and she didn't make her customary last-second stand at the end. Serena smashed her racquet during the match, and by the time it was over she looked physically and emotionally drained. 

As much as they may deny it, Sloane isn’t just any other opponent for Serena, and Serena isn’t just any other opponent for Sloane. There may not be a ranking at stake between them, but there’s pecking order. It's the struggle between young and old, past and future, and a soon-to-be-32-year-old Hall of Famer and her (possible) heir apparent. It didn’t make for pretty tennis in Melbourne—Sloane got ultra-tight, too—and I can see something similar happening on Sunday. 

Sloane has been confident and aggressive the last two matches, but this is a different situation; she may start, as Serena says, with nothing to lose, but if she gets ahead, it won't stay that way. As for Serena, we’ve seen her blow people off the court this year, but we’ve also seen her get panicky when she doesn’t.

Serena may come out with fire in her eye, trying to intimidate and assert herself early. The key will be how Sloane responds; can she make Serena doubt? Can she push back, the way Sabine Lisicki did to Serena at Wimbledon? Sloane wasn’t as powerful as Serena in Melbourne, but she has shown what she can do with an aggressive mindset at Flushing Meadows this week.

For now, we can say two things: The dynamics will be fascinating, and Serena is the pick to win.

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