Ranked outside the WTA’s Top 60 at the beginning of 2019, Alison Riske started off the season with one goal in mind: find her winning mentality.
Always a threat in the draw - and even more so on grass courts - the 29-year-old American had long struggled with consistency, pulling off stunning victories and dramatic comebacks but failing to translate those wins into week-in, week-out success.
“My intention from the beginning of the year was to approach matches a little bit differently emotionally, just because I always struggled with consistency,” Riske explained to WTA Insider. “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.”
That feeling proved true, and Riske would go on to have the best season of her career, recording her best Grand Slam result at her beloved Wimbledon, winning her second career WTA title and ending the year inside the Top 20 for the first time.
It was a different change of pace for Riske, who had struggled with anxiety throughout her career. It was especially heightened in hotels and before big matches, she told WTA Insider - a particularly difficult struggle for a professional tennis player who must contend with both on a regular basis.
“It's more just being able to calm myself and speak to myself in moments that would before be very anxiety-ridden for me,” Riske said. “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… It's something that now that I have it in tennis and 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.”
Riske kicked off the 2019 season by reaching her third career Shenzhen Open final. She fell to an on-fire Aryna Sabalenka, but took away a personal victory as she revealed to press that she had no one from her team accompanying her that week.
But the same pattern of inconsistent results eventually reemerged: after her run to the final in January, Riske would go on to win back-to-back WTA main draw matches only twice again until June.
And then came the grass season.
“I just feel like from the first time that I stepped foot on a grass court in Birmingham in 2009 or so, 2010, I don't even know, I just felt at home. I felt very comfortable on it,” Riske told reporters at Wimbledon. By then, she had racked up a 14-1 win-loss record on the surface.
“I think my game suits it, suits the grass. I enjoy everything about it.”
A known grass-season threat, Riske’s season exploded to life on the lawns in Europe. After months of struggling to find wins, Riske suddenly forgot how to lose: she won 14 of the 16 matches she would contest on grass, including a 10-match winning streak between Surbiton (ITF 100K) and the Libema Open in ‘s-Hertogenbosch after taking home back-to-back titles.
Looking back, winning the trophy in Surbiton was the turning point of her season, Riske recalled. More than just a boost to her ranking - she had fallen back out of the Top 60 by this point in the season, after a peaking at No.45 following her Shenzhen success - it was a boost of the confidence needed to trust her game on her best surface.
“I feel like I got off to a good start [to the year] by making the final in Shenzhen of course, but I think, honestly, beating Magdalena Rybarikova in Surbiton was a moment,” Riske said. “It was weird because obviously it was [100K], but I have so much respect for Rybarikova on grass.
“For me to have pulled it out in the fashion that I did [winning 6-7(5) 6-2 6-2] , 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.”
After her win in Den Bosch, Riske headed to her favorite Slam, unseeded but looming after building up a reputation for pulling off head-turning, come-from-behind wins. She battled her way through the Wimbledon draw in dramatic fashion, coming back from a set down to knock out both No.22 seed Donna Vekic and No.13 Belinda Bencic, and then top seed Ashleigh Barty - the newly-crowned French Open champion - in the round of 16 to record her career-best Grand Slam result.
“I think honestly the biggest key for me has just been to battle from start to finish of every match that I've been a part of,” she said after her win over Barty, her first victory over a World No.1 “Judging by the scoreline, they haven't all gone perfect. I feel like I've been there in every moment, looking to impose myself.
“I'm really most proud about that. I think just being tough has been the key.”
'Being tough’ was definitely the theme of Riske’s drama-filled summer: by the time she reached her Wimbledon quarterfinal clash against Serena Williams, the No.11 seed, she had played seven three-setters in a row - winning all but one of them.
“I think that it's really a lot easier to forgive myself when I know that I'm trying the right thing. I'm doing the right thing, but I'm just not executing,” Riske said when asked about the mental work required to pull off a win after dropping a set or making a mistake at a key moment.
“Ultimately if I'm able to buckle down ever so slightly, give myself a little bit of a different target, pull that in, things are going to turn my way eventually.”
Riske would go on to play an eighth consecutive three-setter in the quarterfinals, taking the 23-time Grand slam champion Serena the distance on Center Court. It was her best Grand Slam finish in her career, and taking place despite a major, potentially anxiety-inducing life event happening right around the corner: Riske was set to be married a week after the Wimbledon final.
“I wish I could get married more often,” Riske joked in a press conference. “Maybe we'll have to renew our vows because it's worked out well having that on the horizon. I'm looking forward to it so much.
“I'm not really stressed about it. I haven't been stressed about it really from the beginning probably because my fiance has been doing all the work,” she laughed. “Yeah, I'm still looking forward to it.”
After a beautiful Pittsburg ceremony where Riske and husband Stephen Amritraj showed off some Bollywood-worthy dance moves, the American kept up the momentum during the summer hardcourt swing. Now ranked in the 30s, Riske qualified for Toronto and battled past Garbine Muguruza in another three sets to reach the second round at the US Open.
It all came together in Wuhan, where Riske beat three Top 20 players in a row to reach the biggest final of her career.
"I'm super excited with the way I'm competing. I just feel like I'm seeing things the way that I wish I had seen them when I was 18 years old fresh on tour. I think maturity plays a part in it," the American said after taking down World No.3 Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals.
"I'm just really happy that I found it now, if not having ever found it. I can only be excited about that."
It’s a sentiment Riske echoed a few days later, after narrowly missing out on the Premier 5 title in a dramatic three-set clash against Aryna Sabalenka in the final - a rematch of their Shenzhen battle.
"I played the top players in the world the last few days,” Riske said afterward. “I think the more I can put myself in those positions, have that success, I think the more I'll expect out of myself, too, in those moments, know that I can come out on the other end."
Finishing her breakthrough season at a career high ranking of No.18, Riske will go into 2020 no longer under the radar but as one of the ones to beat. She sits as the No.4-ranked American in an Olympic year - just behind Serena Williams, Madison Keys and Sofia Kenin - but Riske is determined to tackle the upcoming season with the same mentality that saw her soar to new heights in 2019.
“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,” Riske told WTA Insider.
“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.”
Alison Riske will start the 2020 season at the Brisbane International, which starts January 6, before heading to the Adelaide International and the Australian Open.