Nine minutes in and you couldn’t blame Alison Riske for what she was thinking. Playing against fellow American and good friend Coco Vandeweghe in the first round of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, a WTA event in San Jose, California, Riske had just lost her serve for the second straight time. Vandeweghe had taken a double break lead to go up 3-0, an advantage compounded by her formidable serve.

Afterwards, speaking with courtside announcer Andrew Krasny, Riske summarized her thoughts at that troubling early stage: “Oh no, not this again.” The 37th-ranked Riske was just 2-7 prior to this match, her 2021 campaign hindered by a bout with plantar fasciitis that didn’t fully mend until late spring. At each of her two most recent events, the Olympics and Wimbledon, Riske lost in the first round.

It’s also been a tough time for Vandeweghe. Ranked as high as ninth in 2018, she’s currently 162, her progress stymied by complex regional pain syndrome in 2019, a hand injury suffered last year due to a freak microwave oven accident and a tepid 4-6 start to 2021. Having twice been a finalist at this event, Vandeweghe naturally hoped competing once again in the Bay Area would fuel her resurgence. Those first nine minutes gave strong positive indications. An in-form Vandeweghe, said Riske, “can take the racquet out of your hand.”

But then, everything turned around. Riske broke Vandeweghe’s serve. Despite going down love-40 at 1-3 – the third time in her first three service games she’d been in that position – Riske extricated herself from that crisis and eventually won nine straight games to break open the match and earn a satisfying 6-3, 6-4 victory. “I was really happy with the way I fought,” said Riske.

Still, there came a hiccup. Riske served at 6-3, 3-0, 30-love. Then came her turn to become unglued. She lost that game, then guarded her lead just well enough to at last serve for the match at 5-4–at which point she went down love-40 once again.

But throughout her entire career, Riske has been the first-rate personification of a statement made by one of this tournament’s founders, Billie Jean King: persistence is a talent. Riske’s genius surfaced brilliantly in the final game. At love-40, Riske struck a powerful forehand, then hung in rallies just long enough to extract a pair of errors from Vandeweghe. At deuce, a wide ace, only Riske’s second of the match. The final point saw Vandeweghe line a forehand into the net – her 28th unforced error, compared to a stingy 12 for Riske.

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“I was really happy with the way I fought,” said Riske.

“I was really happy with the way I fought,” said Riske. 

These two have each been pros for well over a decade. As recently as ten years ago, it would have been easy to think that the 29-year-old Vandeweghe and the 31-year-old Riske were soon headed to the twilight. But, aided by tremendous increases in prize money and advancements in sports science, tennis careers have the potential to be much longer than they once were. It’s reasonable to think that each of these players can compete for another five years.

Vandeweghe remains an intriguing hopeful, her game a versatile mix of the physical assets required to contend for majors – most notably an excellent serve, powerful groundstrokes and, rare in contemporary tennis, keen skills at the net. Much of that was present in those first nine minutes. And then it all dissipated, balls going wide, long, netted, Vandeweghe’s rust triggering that downward spiral of self-belief every tennis player not named Rafael Nadal knows painfully well. What started so well turned into a crummy day at the office. Over the course of this match, Vandeweghe appeared to have accidentally cut her right leg and even drove a backhand that knocked down the net post. As she seeks to regain her best form, Vandeweghe is encountering the competitive paradox unique to tennis: You need repeated match play to build confidence, but to get those matches in you must win, which of course requires confidence. It’s a tough cycle to break.

Anguished as Riske was by the poor start, none of that showed in her body language as she assembled this victory in toothpick-by-toothpick fashion. Fit and focused, an in-form Riske moves well, drives her two-handed backhand forcefully and does just enough smart things with her forehand and volleys to stay in many a rally. Recall that two years ago, Riske took out Ash Barty in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Most of all, Riske is testimony to the power of positive thinking and sustained dedication. Players of all skill levels can learn tons from her.