Kristina Mladenović: “Sport is in our blood.”

This is an English version of an interview published on Serbia’s B92.

Mladenović was born in France in 1993, about a year after her parents moved from the former Yugoslavia for her father’s job.  Dragan Mladenović was a professional handball player who was part of the Yugoslav Olympic team that won a gold medal in Los Angeles (1984).  “Kiki,” a top junior in 2009, made her first WTA singles final this year, losing to Sam Stosur on the Strasbourg clay.  Points from her wins at the US Open this week will put her at a new career-high ranking.
AM: What question, if any, are you tired of answering?
KM: There are obviously routine questions about matches, but it’s normal to respond to those.  I think it’s annoying to have the French press always asking, “Are you ok handling the media pressure & expectations?” because it’s been a few years now since I first arrived on the tour.  That’s part of the job and it’s actually a good sign if I have to deal with it.
AM: Both your parents were professional athletes and you & your brother have chosen to follow in their footsteps.  What do sports mean to the members of your family, since everyone is involved in sports but each person is doing something different?
KM: It’s a big thing–sport is in our blood.  To us, it’s normal and natural.  But to have such a family–my father was a professional handball goalkeeper, my mom played volleyball at the international level, my brother is a promising young football player, trying to become professional as well, and me on the tour–it’s amazing. It’s not like our parents pushed us into their way of life.  I’m actually impressed with all of us–it’s something really special. We make fun of it quite often, actually: like when friends come over, there’s always some game on tv and they ask, “Can’t you put a movie on or something?!”
AM: Are you competitive amongst yourselves?
KM: Definitely.  In our free time, I might go watch my brother or play with him or we’d go for a run all together.  We’re a really sporty & healthy family.  This is our style of life.
AM: Your parents clearly understand the pressures & traveling & other aspects of your professional life, but you’re the only one in the family playing an individual sport.  Does that mean there are some things they don’t really grasp?
KM: Yeah.  I’m quite lucky that because they’ve been professional athletes on such a high level, they understand a lot.  They can’t really help me tactically or technically, even though they’ve been by my side for many years and are also improving and learning a lot about tennis.  But they know me best and are such nice and cool parents–and they understand that though tennis is my job, it’s not my whole life.  It’s amazing to have such a good relationship with them.
AM: How did it come about that you chose tennis?  Did you also try team sports like volleyball when you were young?
KM: Yeah, actually I was playing both volleyball and tennis. My parents just introduced me to tennis as a change of pace.  There was a club close to home, so I thought it was a good idea.  As parents, they just wanted my brother and me to be healthy–you know, for kids it’s great to be sporty and not always inside playing video games or whatever.  Actually, I was really talented in volleyball–even better than at tennis.  But I was just a little bored with it; at a young age, like 8-9, it wasn’t that interesting for me because I was already much taller than the other kids & playing better.  So, I chose tennis & went my own way both because I was talented and because it was also more of a challenge.  I fell in love with the sport and had success at an early age, playing my first Slam at 14 and a half.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy–everyone has their own story, a tough path to achieve what they want.
AM: I wonder if there’s also a cultural aspect to it, too, with the long tradition of tennis in France, whereas in the former Yugoslavia there was more of an emphasis on team sports?
KM: Yeah, actually, I have this inside me: even though I chose tennis & I’m a professional player, I’m really a collective-minded person.  So, I really love all the Fed Cup stuff and Olympics–I get so pumped.  It’s different when I’m playing alone–I handle myself differently.  I definitely feel like I’m coming from a team-sport family and culture–and I can’t deny my Serbian roots.
AM: I was going to ask you about the cultural connection.  Obviously, you were born in France, speak the language, & play for the country; but do you go back to Serbia often to visit?  Do you still have family there?
KM: Unfortunately, my two grandmothers died recently, so I have no more grandparents left.  That makes it more difficult to get back there, even though I have uncles and cousins.  It’s especially complicated with the tennis schedule and all the travel–I’m not often at home either.  But I always say in my heart I’m French and in my head I’m Serbian–and let people guess what that means.
AM: Though you’re a singles player now near your career-high ranking, your biggest titles are in doubles. How did your partnership with Daniel Nestor come about & what effect does all your doubles success have on your singles career?
KM: It started easily: he asked me one year before Roland Garros, and I was really impressed that someone like him, a doubles legend who’s won absolutely everything, wanted to play with me.  So, I said “Of course!”  And right away we made the French Open final, then won Wimbledon and the Australian Open.  It’s amazing–really unbelievable–for me to already have all these experiences and titles at age 22.  What can I say?  At the beginning of my career, I played doubles as a way to practice for my singles, since that’s my priority.  But to have Grand Slam titles on your record is such a big privilege and I really respect that and try to remind myself every day that it’s something I can talk about with my children in the future.  I’m enjoying doubles, I’m proud of it, and I’m happy it’s helping my singles–to reach the same level in singles, if possible, is the goal.
AM: In Washington, you won the doubles title playing with Belinda Bencic for the first time. Now you’re back with your steady partner, Timea Babos?
KM: Yeah. She’s exactly my age–four days older than me–and we have such a great relationship.  I know Timea really well and we decided at last year’s Wimbledon to play together.  It’s definitely great to have a fixed partner: there’s all this routine stuff which makes it easier to practice every day. And when it’s your best friend on the tour, it makes it even better.
AM: Last December, you were one of the breakout stars of the IPTL. What were the best things about that experience?  Do you think it had an impact on this season?
KM: Yeah, of course. It’s related to what I said before about collective sports, team spirit.  It was a lot of fun and completely different from what we are used to on the tour.  It reminded me a bit of Fed Cup, but it’s not your country people.
AM: You were on the mostly Balkan team with Novak, Zimonjić, Čilić, Ivanišević...
KM: Yes, exactly. It was definitely an amazing experience to be part of such an unbelievable group, filled with Grand Slam champions in all disciplines. There were just a few exceptions–showmen like Monfils.  I was really impressed & I’m proud to have been called to participate again in such an event.  I think it’s great for tennis to have a different kind of competition & also for the crowd to follow it on tv.  The rules are fun–not that it will become like this on the tour any time soon, but to have it during the off-season is great for the fans.  For myself, I really enjoyed it: stadiums were packed, the atmosphere was amazing, and I had very tough matches–interesting to play at such a high level [during a break].
AM: Caroline Wozniacki was the other woman on your team, but since she wasn’t there as much, you had to step up. Some of those match-ups could have been quarter-finals at a major tournament. KM: Definitely. My teammates were making fun of me, saying “You are the MVP!” Obviously, there was a lot of expectation and pressure, as you had to try to bring as many games as possible to your team.  I think I responded pretty well.  I loved it and felt good playing, so I can’t wait to have some more fun again this year.
AM: You’ve been on tennis fans’ radars for a while and won your first major doubles title in 2013. Now that you’re in the top 40 for singles, do you feel like it’s taken longer or about what you expected to get here?
KM: I was also #35 about two years ago, my best ranking, so I’m coming back.  You know, everyone has their own story, their own way, their own process–you never know. For some, it goes easily and they stay at the top; for others, it’s up and down; some arrive to the top 10 and then they’re struggling.  There’s not really one key to success.  The only thing I can request from myself is to work hard every day, to know where I’m going and what I have to improve. Once I do this, I can do more.  I’m happy just trying to do my best–I’m not worried about the time it’s taking; I’m just trying to enjoy every win.  And think that’s the best way to improve.
AM: You experimented short-term with a couple of Serbian coaches, Dušan Vemić and Nemanja Kontić, but that didn’t work out. What’s your coaching arrangement now?
KM: Since February, I don’t have a coach.  And, actually, I think it’s working pretty well so far.  Those two experiences didn’t work out very well–I didn’t feel myself in that kind of structure.  So, I decided to go on my own. Of course, I’ve always had my family support around me.  They’re not annoying, pushing, and trying to advise too much in tennis–they can advise about other stuff. They would never say, “You have to do forehands like this.”  That’s why they’re really cool and bring me a lot of support about the important things in my life.  Right now, I think I’m handling it pretty well–I know what I have to do to improve, so I’m just doing it on my own.  I don’t pretend I can reach my goals alone, and the situation is pretty open–I can always find someone, but it has to be a good fit.
AM: Do you set goals for the season–and is it about ranking or more specific things?
KM: When you’re at this level, you really have to think about stuff like that–it’s what pushes you to be better.  Of course, I have technical goals–I have to improve this and that, my fitness, my forehand, my backhand–but you also try to put yourself ahead in the ranking.  So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved.  For next year, I think it would be nice to be a seed [in the top 32], because I’ve been playing a lot of seeds in the first round!
AM: Getting a former US Open champion is a tough draw.  What does the win over Kuznetsova (6-3, 7-5) tell you about your current form?
KM: Yeah, when the draw came out I saw it would be difficult. I respect Svetlana a lot–she’s a two-time Slam champion and really a tough player with a huge career.  On the court, I had to play great, a very solid match, to beat her and it’s definitely one more very nice win for me. I’m definitely pleased–every first round in a Slam is very difficult to win. This is what’s amazing in women’s tennis today: everybody has improved a lot & I feel like every player can be dangerous.  I’m trying now to focus on each match, even if it’s not such a famous name.  I’m a humble person and respect every opponent–anybody can be tough and play great tennis, especially for one match.
After her 7-5, 6-1 win over Bojana Jovanovski, we followed up with some routine post-match questions.
AM: How did you feel about the match today?
KM: The score definitely made it look easy, but it was actually a really tricky match, as I expected.  I was down 4-2, almost 5-2 in the first set and I somehow fought really hard and turned it around.  I don’t think either of us played our best–it’s never easy when you know each other really well.  We’ve practiced together many times–and we’ve known each other since we started tennis.  A funny story, actually, is that I played Bojana in my very first tournament–in Serbia, when I was in holidays with my parents, around 7 years old.  When you know somebody really well, sometimes you try to change the way you play to surprise her somehow. So, with this kind of match, I’m just really glad to get through.
AM: Are you feeling lucky that instead of facing Sharapova in the third round, you’re getting an unknown 18-year old, Daria Kasatkina?
KM: Well, it’s true that it’s an unknown name and I don’t know much about her either, but it’s tough to say.  Instead of Maria, I could be playing Gavrilova, who’s beaten her in the past.  So, Maria was the higher rank and the best player in this part of the draw.  But this girl has an unbelievable story–she’s supposed to be out of the tournament already and now she’s won two interesting matches against solid players and two completely different styles of game, which means she must be pretty talented and solid mentally as well. She’s stayed composed and got two wins in what may be her first main draw of a major–that’s pretty amazing. So, I’m actually expecting a tough match.
With Maria, you don’t have anything to lose and you know her game perfectly well through watching and playing against her.  You know how to play and she has all the pressure–plus, I have the game.  This way, it looks much easier on paper and I have more experience; on the other hand, you don’t know anything about the opponent and it’s an important match, which can be dangerous.
~Interview conducted by Ana Mitrić and translated by Saša Ozmo.
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