ZHUHAI, China - Alison Riske's 2019 scrapbook will be bursting at the seams by the time the year comes to an end. The Pittsburgh native made her first major quarterfinal on her favorite surface at Wimbledon, made the biggest final of her career at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, saved match points to defeat Kiki Bertens to win the Libema Open in s'Hertogenbosch, and make her Top 20 debut at the end of the regular season.
All while squeezing in the time to get married to long-time boyfriend Stephen Amritraj over the summer.
The 29-year-old American's year was full of highlights both on and off the court, but one significant breakthrough is one that cannot be captured on paper.
Riske sat down with WTA Insider ahead of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai to reflect on her season and reveal the secret to her success.
WTA Insider: What was the standout moment for you this season?
Riske: My intention from the beginning of the year was to approach matches a little bit differently emotionally, just because I always struggled with consistency. I felt like if I could approach every match with a specific intention I was going to be able to get somewhere I've never been.
I feel like I got off to a good start by making the final in Shenzhen of course, but I think, honestly, beating Magdalena Rybarikova in Surbiton was a moment. It was weird because obviously it was 125K, but I have so much respect for Rybarikova on grass.
For me to have pulled it out in the fashion that I did, playing the game that I wanted to for the first time from start to finish, I felt was a huge moment for me. I was really proud of it. I feel like I kind of embraced it and was able to continue that throughout the rest of the season.
WTA Insider: Your coach Billy Heiser said the biggest difference this year was that you bought in fully with his philosophy for your game, both on and off the court.
Riske: I'm so grateful for Billy to have been on top of me. I've been with him for two years. The first year he was trying to get me to buy into it all being mental. I just struggled with it. I was like, no, it's my tennis. Sometimes I wake up and my tennis is this way and he's like, no, you are in control of that. It's so simple.
I really have bought into it and I've designated a lot of time to everything mental. It's little things off court that I feel like it's been a change as a human, not just as a tennis player, that has really helped me to get better results.
I feel like I was able to be comfortable when I was uncomfortable. That's so cliche, but I feel like it really is the key to everything.
WTA Insider: Do you have an example of how you've changed?
Riske: This might sound silly, but it's an actual thing I go through. I go into my hotel room and if I hear noise outside, the traffic, that drives me up a wall if I can hear anything. It drives me crazy.
Before I would panic and I would think, alright, well my week is gonna be extremely difficult. I'm going to have to go and try to change five rooms and pick up all my luggage and this is going to be such a stressful situation for me. I would get so uptight and just so much anxiety.
Now if that happens, well I'm going to go down at the front desk and I'm going to calmly talk to them, lay out the situation. We know even if I don't sleep my 10 hours a night that I'm going to be OK. I'm going to be able to perform tomorrow. Yes, we hope it doesn't happen back to back nights. Then it's gonna be an issue. But for the first couple, we're gonna be OK.
It's more just being able to calm myself and speak to myself in moments that would before be very anxiety-ridden for me. Those things can't affect how I go out and compete on the tennis court. That for me has been extremely invaluable.
It's amazing because I feel like this is what I've been searching for in my whole career. And even when I quit, I would have been extremely upset because then I know it's going to happen in life, too. So it's something that now that I have it in tennis, I feel that when I'm finished, I will have been able to say that I conquered this and I have it for the rest of my life.
WTA Insider: So would you describe yourself as being an anxious person?
Riske: I was very anxious. Anxiety-ridden about everything. I would just feel the nerves and I would even be shaking if I go out for a match that I'm really nervous for. Just the rampant thoughts of possible failure and what it would be, instead of coming from a place of power, as opposed to all the things that could go wrong.
WTA Insider: How do you manage anxiety as a tennis player? You're playing under extraordinary pressure, you're all alone out there, you're playing in front of fans, it seems like a nightmare if you're naturally anxious.
Riske: I feel like that's where the inconsistency of my career has come. Because when I would lose I would think about all the things that I did wrong. And honestly, a lot of the times, the things that I did wrong were all mental, and I never was able to perform to my ability because I was so caught up in all the things that could go wrong, in the way that I was feeling bad, and how good my opponent was playing. All the things that, some I had control over, some I didn't.
Now I'm was able to give that over and realize that at the end of the day, everything's going to be OK and the career goes on. If I go out and I play tight, I'm able to acknowledge it and then next week, we know exactly what happened and I'm able to try to do it differently. Whereas before I would have a bad match and I would think this blows and then it would just last it would last for the next week and then I might lose again and it goes again. And then I just keep losing confidence. It was really, if you think about it, a crazy cycle.
WTA Insider: This seems like a common refrain amongst tennis players, having to fight the negativity and negative cycle. Do you think the sport just attracts people who are hard-wired this way, or do you think the sport makes them this way?
Riske: I think it's just because there's competition involved. You don't win every week.
Billy will talk to other coaches on tour and especially players that we really think are doing an awesome job and he'll go and sit down with those coaches and just talk to them. And it's amazing what he comes back with because a lot of times we're all fighting the exact same things.
The players at the very top are just are able to get over it. They're more forgiving. It's really exciting for me to finally see it all unfold and to really grasp what I feel like is transforming.
WTA Insider: Given your personal progress this year, do you think you have a different outlook on the future of your career than maybe you had at the start of this season?
Riske: I think that as long as I keep the proper perspective and I don't fall back into any old habits, that my career is different already, you know? I think that's the exciting part for me.
I'm just so excited that I've put myself in this position and I like to think I still have a bit of a good bit of years in front of me that I will be able to keep trying to get better at it and see where it takes me.