Riske Business

by: Peter Bodo May 29, 2014

AP Photo

“Emotionally, I feel I didn’t handle the situation that well. The focus wasn’t exactly on my tennis, as it should be. And when you don’t focus on playing well and doing what you’re out there to do, what you’re out there to do doesn’t happen.”—Alison Riske, on allowing the French crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen get to her in her loss to Kristina Mladenovic.

PARIS—You have to give Riske credit. She understands that Mladenovic is a French player. A 24-year-old native of Pittsburgh, Riske knows from crowd noise—she’s a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, for crying out loud. In fact, she thought the crowd at her match today was pretty “respectful” and did more or less exactly what she expected.

So what?

Knowing things and being able to handle them are two entirely different things, which is why Riske’s loss in this second-round match at Roland Garros was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. That, and the fact that Mladenovic had punched a big hole in the draw when she took down No. 2 seed Li Na in the first round. It’s a hole Riske had hoped to bolt through.

Mladenovic won the first set in a tiebreaker despite committing six double faults (she had a grand total of 13 in the match, or the equivalent of three games and a point). In the second set, Riske broke her to take a 5-3 lead, then served out the set to level the match.

But all along, Riske was fighting herself, trying to keep the crowd from getting to her as she tried to settle in and find her game on a steady basis. It never happened. Mladenovic broke to go up 3-1 in the third set. Riske immediately broke back, but then was promptly broken again. Mladenovic served it out with no further breaks to win, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-3.

This was one of those interesting case studies in how partisan crowd dynamics work. It’s usually assumed that the great value of owning the crowd is the boost it gives to the favored player. Davis Cup and Fed Cup, in which the host-nation crowds can be downright intimidating, is certainly an exception.  

But this crowd, Riske freely acknowledged, produced nothing like that. It hardly mattered. A bright young lady (Riske says she would have gone to med school if pro tennis hadn’t entered the picture), she was able to put her finger on the problem—thereby revealing something subtle but powerful about playing a crowd darling.

“The whole environment made it difficult to calm myself down. I got too psyched up, too into the moment. I didn’t calm my adrenalin, couldn’t calm myself so I could play my game in that environment.”

In other words, the crowd got Riske over-stoked, while Mladenovic was able to manage her emotions and focus on the task at hand, despite all the attention. It’s almost the reverse of what you might expect.

That attention was significant. When Mladenovic ploughed ahead 5-2 in the third, the fans on Lenglen produced the wave, and afterward they chanted Mladenovic’s nickname: “Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki!”

“It’s an intimate stadium,” Riske admitted. “It gets pretty loud in there.”

After the match ended (on a Mladenovic ace), Riske was so distracted that when she grabbed her bag she went to wrong way in her hurry to get off the court. “Yeah, that was special, too. I was like, ‘Just get me out of here.’”

It’s too bad she left. She could have stuck around to hear Mladenovic’s first words to the crowd: “Je t’aime!”—French for “I love you!”

I turned to a French colleague upon hearing that and asked how long this love affair with Mladenovic had been going on.

“Just since since she’s been winning,” she replied.

There’s nothing like sports to generate overblown, trite emotions. Riske knows that, but today that knowledge didn’t help.

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