Getting To Know... Alison Riske
Published June 21, 2010 12:00
LONDON, United Kingdom - Last summer 19-year-old Alison Riske arrived at a fork in the road: Did she accept a scholarship to prestigious Vanderbilt University, mixing tennis and studies, or did she put all her energies into the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour? After years as a touted junior and trying to break through to the senior ranks - she played her first ITF Circuit event in her home town of Pittsburgh in 2004 - it was a hard call. In the end full-time tennis won the day, and so in April Riske made her Tour main draw debut as a wildcard at Charleston. But it was on Birmingham's grass that she really showcased her potential: as a qualifier, Riske beat Aleksandra Wozniak, Anna Chakvetadze and Yanina Wickmayer en route to the semis, where she pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets. It was enough to earn a call from the All England Club, proffering a wildcard for Wimbledon - a sign, if ever there was, that the right decision had been made.
We caught up with Alison in London as she prepared for her Wimbledon and Grand Slam main draw debut.
When did you find out about the wildcard for Wimbledon?
AR: I'd just beaten Wickmayer at Birmingham. I was in the players' lounge and was asked to call the Wimbledon referee. I was like, 'Oh no, what did I do?' When he told me, I wondered how I would focus on playing Sharapova the next day. But I'm so honored to be here. I thought it was really special because it wasn't even from my federation - it's really commendable that they gave it to someone other than their own.
Is there a key lesson you learned from that great run at Birmingham?
AR: I think it's just that if you believe in yourself anything's possible. They were all such good players, even the ones I beat in qualifying. I had a lot of three setters throughout the tournament and I just had to fight.
Have you had much experience of playing on grass?
AR: No. I played the ITF event at Nottingham the week before Birmingham and that was my very first grass court tournament.
What did you make of the pre-Wimbledon players' party the other night?
AR: It was unreal. I pulled up in the taxi and I saw all the paparazzi and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be so embarrassing, I'm going to walk through and no-one's going to have any idea who I am!' But the man said my name and people actually took pictures. I was completely shocked… that made my night right there. It was just a wonderful night - I was in awe the entire time. I didn't want to leave, but I didn't want to break my curfew at 10.30. My sister didn't want to leave either - I had to pull her away.
Obviously tennis is the priority, but is this side of life on the Tour something you enjoy and look forward to?
AR: Definitely. It's nice to be able to take advantage of the parties and events on offer. Sometimes at the end of the day you're tired and you don't feel like going, but this is all part of the experience and you want to take it all in and enjoy it.
So how do you find Wimbledon, now that you've had some time there practising?
AR: I hardly know what to say. It's absolutely amazing. My sister and I joke that we died and went to Wimbledon because it's that breathtaking... just everything about it. You're completely taken care of, and everyone is so nice. It just has a special feel to it and I love the strawberries and cream, so I can't complain!
You've drawn Wickmayer again in the first round… how do you feel about that?
AR: It's another day and anything can happen. I've just got to play my game, and of course I'll try to remember what I did last time, go over it with my sister. I'm just excited to be here and we'll see how it goes.
How do you describe your playing style?
AR: I think I'm an aggressive all-courter. I enjoy taking my chances to come into the net; some matches I do so more than others.
Are you working on any particular part of your game at the moment?
AR: I've been working on the mental side more than the actual playing side. Of course I spend hours on the court, but you know, all these girls have the ability to beat the best but I feel it's those who believe in themselves that can take it to top players. I've tried to work on just knowing that I belong here and in terms of my game, being aggressive, and knowing that no matter what's happening in a match, things can turn around.
You were headed for Vanderbilt; did you actually start classes before you decided to pursue the Tour instead?
AR: It was two weeks before class began. It's kind of a touchy subject, I'm sure, for them because it kind of turned their plans for the season around. I mean, they had been planning on me being there, and so I feel really bad about that to this day. But I'm living my dream.
What would you have studied?
AR: I think if I'd been trying to pursue tennis at the same time, I probably would have gone with something down the business route. But now I have the chance to play now and be a student later, I would hope to do something along the lines of medicine or pharmacy.
What's it like to have your sister, Sarah, as coach?
AR: We have the greatest time. Of course when we're on court we have a mission, things to accomplish. But it's really nice to have her on the road with me because apart from being a former player herself, she knows me like the back of her hand. She can tell from a look in my eye that I don't want to do something or I don't want to be there. We have the best time; everything we do is fun. I'm blessed, and I appreciate that her husband lets her come with me!
What else can you tell us about your coaching history?
AR: I began working at Hilton Head a couple of years ago with Yves Boulais, whose wife is (former world No.28) Patricia Hy. He still plays a part working with me, he's one of the greatest coaches. But you know things can get pretty expensive. I took a lesson from my sister one day - she was actually taught by him as well - and I was like, 'Wow, it's kind of like what Yves gives me.' So we pursued it a bit more and before we knew it she was hitting with me every day. Back home Yves still works with me when he gets the chance, so it's worked out perfectly… I'm really lucky to have both of them.
Your parents are retired - what did they do before that?
AR: My dad was in the secret service, he was on detail with presidents, and when he retired from that he did FBI investigating as well. My mom was a schoolteacher.
If you win a few matches, might they come over to watch?
AR: I told them when I'm in the finals I'll have enough money to fly them over! My mom was going to come on this trip, but when I started to do well I said, 'You know, mom I'm a little superstitious right now, and I don't want to screw anything up that Sarah and I might have going'. So she's back in the States, but she wouldn't have it any other way - she's gotten nervous a lot over the last few years, so she's content staying at home.
You also have a brother, Daniel - what does he do?
AR: He's an accountant in Pittsburgh.
Did you have a tennis idol, growing up?
AR: To be honest I very rarely watched tennis. My parents played socially and I was pretty much forced into it by my father, and if it weren't for him I would have quit long ago (Laughs). Thanks to him, he stayed on me… and now I can't imagine life without it. But of anyone, I definitely loved the way that Monica Seles played.
Who would be your dream opponent on the Tour?
AR: I'll say Serena Williams, but I'd be so nervous… I don't know that I would get a serve in the box. I think she's absolutely amazing.
If you could steal a shot from another player, what would it be?
AR: Roger Federer's slice backhand.
Who are your friends on Tour?
AR: It can be hard sometimes on the Tour, but obviously I'm friendly with the other Americans and there are others as well. I think Melanie Oudin is one of a kind… it's really great to have a girl like that representing the US because she's so nice and she's whippin' up on people! I was able to hang out with her at the party the other night, and it really nice to have her there.
Do you feel pressure to be part of the next generation of American stars?
AR: Not at all, it hasn't crossed my mind.
What sort of goals do you have in tennis?
AR: I wouldn't like to quote a particular ranking goal, but I definitely write down my goals… Sarah and I will have our goal sessions. I definitely set them for months, and I also set them for the year. I've had to revise them a little bit, because I've reached a few lately.
You keep a journal… are we talking bullet points or volumes every day? How intense is the journal?
AR: That's a good way of putting it because it is pretty intense! I love to write. I'll be doing something in the middle of the day and I'll think, 'I can't wait to write in my journal.' Especially being at Wimbledon and seeing Roger Federer practise, I was like, 'This is going to be the best diary entry'. I'll do three pages at a time so my arm is sore. I try to keep track of everything, because this is such a rare thing that I'm doing. To look back on it I think will be really neat.
How else do you like to spend your free time?
AR: I like reading, though I have to confess I haven't been on this trip to Europe. I like light novels, something with a little romance. Nothing too serious.
What quality do you most admire in other people?
AR: As far as tennis players go, I think if you can be a nice person off court but take charge on court, that's commendable and I hope I do the job of it. Ultimately it's just tennis and I hope people don't take it too seriously. I think if you can be yourself and maintain being nice, you've won the battle.
If your best friend was asked to describe you in one word, what do you think they'd say?
AR: A lot of attitudes come to mind but they might say I'm a pretty oblivious person when it comes to a lot of things; I'm kind of in my own little world!
What's your most treasured possession?
AR: My family, definitely. They're the ones that made this all possible.
If you were stranded on a desert island but could choose one luxury item to have with you, what would it be?
AR: If it could be a person, I would say my sister - there would never be a dull moment, it wouldn't matter if we were stranded and never found. Otherwise, I'd probably have to say my camera.
Who would you most like to meet in the world, outside tennis?
AR: Sidney Crosby. He plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team. Actually, don't say that… I've mentioned his name in other interviews and people are going to think I'm crazy! I would not be able to talk if I met him.
Do you have a favorite city or tournament?
AR: I fall in love with every town I go to. Each town I decide I want to live there one day. But we've just been to Paris and it was unbelievable, so beautiful and we had the greatest time. My sister and I, we could have cried the day we had to leave.