NEW YORK, NY, USA - There's just something about the US Open that brings out the best in Aleksandra Krunic. Three years ago she enjoyed a seed-slaying run as a qualifier, notching wins over Petra Kvitova and Madison Keys to score her best ever result at a Slam, eventually losing in three sets to Victoria Azarenka in the Round of 16. Currently ranked No.78, the 24-year-old Serb earned her second Top 10 win on Monday, ousting No.7 Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round.
Gifted with variety and athleticism -- perhaps too much, in fact -- Krunic's inspired 2014 run would turn out to be more of an outlier rather than a sign of things to come over the next two years.
"In 2014, I think I was lucky in some things because everything went my way that week," Krunic told reporters after her win over Konta. "But before and after that I was not working very hard. I cannot call a fourth round of a Grand Slam 'an accident', that would be stupid. But it definitely wasn't my great work or hard work. It was just my talent, my physical abilities that worked together that particular week. The rest of the year and the next year, I wasn't really playing amazing.
"We all need time -- some players more, some players less -- to realize what works best on the court mental-wise. I think I found my way and the most important thing for me now is to just let myself play and let my body do the job and try to think as little as possible with my head. Once I start thinking it's just too many thoughts and it's messing me up."
"I just try to work in the way that I don't mess my own self up. Silently, it's just shut up and play. Like my coach tells me so many times, Aleks just shut up! It's a game. And so long as I understand it as a game, good for me."
Krunic's best results have always come on the sport's biggest stages, whether it be at the US Open or in her many memorable turns as a member of Serbia's Fed Cup team. She needs the inspiration and the energy to distract her, to keep her positive when her mind is always more inclined to focus on the negative.
"In my head, I just tell myself, next point, next point. Even if I'm pissed about my decisions, I do my blah blah for 10 seconds -- I can't function without it -- or I talk to my team. I tell someone, I don't know, 'You have a terrible haircut,' and then I move on to the next point. It's a little bit schizophrenic. But it's ok, it's getting better."
There's an artistry to Krunic's game that, when she's playing at her best, can leave her opponents flummoxed. Her fluid serve can rack up aces -- she out-aced Konta on Monday -- while her touch, feel, and overall creativity can leave her opponents without a clue of where the next ball is going. But that variety means she can fool herself as well, out-thinking and second-guessing her shot selection and doing her opponent's work for them.
"I follow my instincts everywhere except on the tennis court, which I realized, finally at 24 years old, that doesn't make any sense. Why would I trust them out of the court but on the court, in my head, it's just a mess. I'm definitely trying to find a way for myself to play, my body, my talent, everything that I've been given and everything that I've worked for has to become one."
WTA Insider sat down with Krunic after her press conference to dig even deeper into why it's so hard for gifted players to find their way, and how maturity and perspective helped her rediscover her path.
Listen to the WTA Insider Podcast below:
More from Krunic:
On having a game based on variety:
"I notice that girls that have more options need more time to get into the Top 100 and stay there. It's much more up and down because you don't know sometimes what shot to use. That's why I've decided to follow my intuition because that's the first thing that comes to you. That gut feeling usually never fools us."
On why it's been difficult to just go with her instincts:
"When I was younger I was listening to everyone's expectations. Off the court I expect myself to just give my best. But on the court, even if I do something perfectly, I feel it can be better. When I do something well but then I make a mistake once in five shots, I tend to pay too much attention to the mistake. Obviously on the court I'm a perfectionist, but it's really tough to achieve something that doesn't exist. Perfection is a non-existent thing."
On why she struggled with her work ethic:
"I wasn't consistent in anything. I never liked to be put into a frame where this is what you have to do every day. I'm very intuitive and I wake up and I feel like a wreck and I don't want to practice or do anything. So I just wouldn't do it. But now I understand that ok, I feel terrible, but I can still go on court, I can still make a difference to my day, I can hit 30 minutes, it's fine. But give everything you have. Now I can face myself for not being perfect."