Alison Riske may never reach the No. 1 ranking. Roughly 150 women tennis players have as good or better a chance to win Wimbledon — in some cases, much better. But last week in Tianjin, China, Riske achieved something many of her peers have yet to do: She won a WTA Tour title.

She celebrated by tweeting: “Hey guys, I DID IT!!!!! My first WTA title!!!!!!!!! #loveyou4evertianjin.”

Think she was happy?

This is something Anna Kournikova, who at one time was the leading search term on the Internet, never did manage. It’s something that world No. 22 Peng Shuai, a U.S. Open semifinalist, has yet to achieve. Some pundits and fans have fallen all over themselves touting Sloane Stephens as the future of U.S. women’s tennis, but she hasn’t ever won a main tour title either.


Riske and Reward

Riske and Reward

But Alison Riske, a 5-foot-9, 24-year old with a powerful serve and laser-like ground strokes, is now a tournament champion. One of the reasons that’s so nice to see is that she did it on her own, or as much on her own as can be expected these days. As she said after the match, "It's a huge accomplishment for me to win my first WTA title. And  I was here by myself, which made it even more special, just to know that I was able to do it by myself.”

She was there by herself. Does that kind of thing even happen in tennis anymore?

Tennis once was known as a sport with a healthy population of lone wolves — players who did things their own way, at their own pace, often making it up as they went along. Now, anyone who can afford it has a traveling coach, a physio, perhaps even a separate fitness trainer and hitting partner. And that’s just the nucleus of an entourage that is often enhanced by a fleet of family members.

Tennis is still called a sport of individuals, but it is less so all the time. It is also a sport that has, since the advent of Open tennis, featured an enormous drive to standardization. There is a constantly shrinking number of ways to skin any given cat. The two-handed backhand was probably the last significant step in the evolution of what appears to be a finished game. When it comes to playing style, there are few holdouts from the conventional wisdom.

How different is it from what tennis used to be? This is an era in which the harder you hit the ball the greater the chance that it will fall inside the lines (thanks, polyester!).

Different enough for you?

Riske’s win is refreshing because it strikes a blow for a vestigial lone-wolfishness. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., which has never been mistaken for a hotbed of tennis. More significantly, she stayed put there. She led her Peters Township High School tennis team to the 2006 Pennsylvania State championship. She also won the state singles title. A nice achievement for sure, but other 16-year-olds were playing for a lot of money in front of enormous crowds in capitals in Asia, or Europe.


Riske and Reward

Riske and Reward

Riske had her heart set on following in the tracks of her older sister Sarah’s tennis shoes to Vanderbilt University, perhaps even taking a flyer and trying to win a few matches in the pro minor leagues (as had Sarah) before pursuing a career in medicine. But something unexpected happened: Riske’s game took a quantum leap in 2009, just months before she was to enter Vanderbilt. She made a snap decision to pursue a tennis career on the WTA Tour.

It hasn’t always been easy for Riske. She’s bounced around some, trying different coaches, different training centers. She’s had to face some daunting situations out on her own, like that second-round French Open match earlier this year against local favorite Kristina Mladenovic. It was a tough three-setter that Riske let get away from her, partly because of the partisan atmosphere.

But all the while Riske has been improving; She’s up to No. 44 now, and closing on a career high ranking. She’s justified her decision to forgo college. The pickings are slim for a lone wolf on the tour anymore, but for the moment Riske must feel sated and proud of what she’s achieved. And she has good reason to be.