Alison Riske Tokyo Olympics feature

Roots of Fight is a brand that produces high-end apparel commemorating champions from numerous walks of life. From Joe Frazier and Jackie Robinson to Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks, celebrated icons splash across their product lines, linked by indomitable fighting spirits that made some of the greatest triumphs imaginable possible.

One of Alison Riske’s favorite shirts comes from their Muhammad Ali collection. A gift from husband Stephen Amritraj, the top is inscribed with A-L-I, and represents so much more than the WTA veteran’s nickname.

“It’s a reminder to go out there, be fierce and to just be me,” Riske tells TENNIS.com in a phone interview.

In 2019, Riske brought the best of “me” on the court, remarkably after beginning her season 1-8 in tour-level matches. Returning to her beloved grass, Riske surged to win the $100k event in Surbiton. She didn’t waver in erasing five championship points to stun Kiki Bertens for her second WTA title in Den Bosch a week later.

At Wimbledon, Riske brought even more fierceness, clinching four consecutive three-setters—the latter over world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty to reach her first major quarterfinal. Her continued uptick later included her biggest career final in Wuhan thanks to a pair of Top 10 victories.

By the time Riske posted a fourth-round showing at the 2020 Australian Open, she was inside the Top 20 and, more importantly, had put herself in pole position to make possible a childhood dream of representing the red, white and blue on the Olympic stage. That March, Riske ranked fourth among her countrywomen and led then No. 5 American Amanda Anisimova, who was due to defend French Open semifinal points before the Tokyo 2020 cutoff, by more than 500 points.

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Then, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic would shut down the WTA Tour for nearly five months. The Olympics were postponed, prolonging Riske’s race for another year, and lane presented further, unyielding hurdles: Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. While Riske struggled to compete at full strength, she watched as Jennifer Brady, Coco Gauff, and Jessica Pegula all vaulted their way into the Team USA conversation with their own strings of stirring success.

“I was so distraught about the whole Olympic situation, because I never really felt that I had the opportunity to re-earn it, just given the circumstances. I was devastated,” recalls Riske. “I'm literally sitting on the couch and seeing what their results are, yet you have to have so much respect for what the others are achieving.

“Jenny is one of my good friends and I have seen her transform in front of me and it has been so inspiring, especially to know her story so intimately. She works so hard and deserves every bit of her success. Coco is my favorite player on tour and I love following her. I love her family. I think that she has so much ahead of her. And Jessie, she’s been through a lot in her career. To see her now be able to put things together and truly be unstoppable is remarkable.”

Riske’s lone 2021 appearance before the heart of the clay-court season came at February’s Australian Open, where she was forced to undergo hard quarantine for 14 days before losing her opener. When she arrived in Europe, Riske had thrown in the towel. There was no fierce final stand this time for the usually upbeat American. Her Olympic dream was buried by this point, all energy now directed towards getting her body right.

When she was forced to retire against Iga Swiatek in Rome and subsequently pull out of Roland Garros, a trip to Tokyo was all but off the table when the final cut placed Riske in seventh among an incredibly deep U.S. contingent.

In Eastbourne, Riske received the dreaded phone call from Kathy Rinaldi. Or so she thought. Prepared for disheartening news, Riske’s headspace was in what she described as “this sucks” mode. Little did she know her Billie Jean King Cup captain had a lifeline to offer, a deserved dose of good karma. With a group of players declining participation, the fourth singles berth had her name on it.

“This was truly a moment in my career where it was trying to teach me a very particular lesson about whatever is meant to happen for you, will happen, whatever it's going to be,” she says. “I was just absolutely elated. I'm so excited. It's truly going to be an experience of a lifetime.”

While the grass swing didn’t yield the results Riske hoped for, it was a convincing success on another important front. For the first time since the WTA restart, her battles were limited to the other side of the net. Arriving home pain free, the 31-year-old walked through the front door with greater perspective. One to set goals ahead of each season, Riske treasured the moment to check off the one placed at the top of her list the past two years: Olympian.

“It leaves me pretty speechless to even think about it. This is such an amazing honor,” Riske reflects. “My career has been a journey and a lot of my successes or greatest moments have been in the last few years, which has been quote unquote, ‘the later stages of my career.’ So I don't take that for granted.”

Hot and humid Tokyo should be more of a benefit than a detraction for Riske, who resides in Orlando, Fla. An aggressive player favoring a quick tempo, she’s found the conditions to be “absolute lightning” in the past at the Ariake Tennis Park—and those experiences came in late September at an annual tour stop. Ultimately for Riske, it all comes down to being centered for the big moment.

“I think in order to get things rolling, I need to focus on myself,” she asserts. “I need to get back being gritty on the court. I'm just super excited to compete, and honestly, go out there healthy.”

WTA and ATP players have grown accustomed to the bubble life and acclimating to new sets of circumstances with each tournament week. Like the rest of her peers, Riske won’t have her family in the stands at the global event with the strict coronavirus restrictions in place. But, her cherished shirt, the one that emboldens Riske to fight like Ali and think of the girl named Ali who dreamed of stepping on this very stage, should provide a needed source of home when she throws it on in the Japanese capital.