With two weeks left to 2019, Kristina Mladenovic turned a season to remember into one she'd never forget. The former WTA Doubles No.1 went from defending her Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen title with best friend Timea Babos to a climactic weekend in Perth, where she led the French Fed Cup team to its first title since 2003 - shocking WTA Year-End World No.1 Ashleigh Barty along the way.

In addition to topping the rankings for the first time in doubles, Mladenovic showed flashes of the singles brilliance that took her to the 2017 French Open quarterfinals and a career-high ranking of World No.10, and ended the season with semifinal runs at the Zhengzhou Open and Kremlin Cup - where she scored wins over Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens, respectively.

Mladenovic met the moment most often against the game's best, winning two of her three matches against World No.1s, bookending the year with a win over Naomi Osaka at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships before thwarting an on-fire Barty in front of her home crowd at Fed Cup.

The 26-year-old will have another shot at a scene-stealing win on Tuesday night, taking on No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova to kick off the 2020 Grand Slam season. Before heading to Australia, she spoke at length with wtatennis.com about her off-season spent at home in Dubai, the keys to taking out top players, and whether the all-court specialist sees an Olympic sweep in her future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On spending off-season at home in Dubai…
I’m based in Dubai; I’ve spent my off-season here for the last five or six years, and I feel like I come earlier and earlier! I always have some things to do in France; after our Fed Cup success, for example, we had lots of media and things to do in Paris. Once everything was done, I was happy to get some sun here. I didn’t really go anywhere on holidays because I was coming back from Australia, and that was a lot of traveling for me at the end of the season, with Shenzhen, as well. The trip from Australia back to France was really brutal. I started practicing a few weeks ago; time is flying and we are almost at the new season. It’s been working well; I’ve been trying to keep the momentum that I had at the end of the season.

It suits my lifestyle so much. When I decided to move here, it was because I really fell in love with the place and the facilities. I was really struggling when I was a bit younger to do the whole off-season process in the cold of France. I thought it was the best for me and my health, because it’s easier to give 100%, work really hard, and go back the next day and see the sun shining in the morning. In France, it’s dark at night when you finish and it’s dark when you start again in the morning! The environment really pushes me to work hard and enjoy the great vibes. It also helps when I look ahead to Australia at the start of the season, because it shortens up the trip. Lots of girls came over here to practice; they’re looking for the sun, too!

On playing an ITF Pro Circuit event as part of her pre-season…
The funny thing is that the site is a five-minute walk from where I live. I just thought it would be a great challenge to have some practice matches in the middle of my off-season, when I’ve been doing a lot of conditioning. The field at the tournament was quite strong; all of the seeded players were ranked in the Top 100, so it was lots of quality matches. I was practicing very hard in between matches, but I still wanted to challenge myself and get some match play. It’s different to play an official match as opposed to a practice set. It adds a bit more spice! I wanted a little variety and to have some match experience where I could rediscover that fighting spirit. I felt I hadn’t lost much from my last great matches of the season. I made the semifinals and it wasn’t even a normal week. I wouldn’t be doing the extra things I was doing at a regular tournament, so it wasn’t about the result.

On her strong finish to the 2019 season…
I feel like I picked up my game again. It feels really natural again to me, how I should play and how I want to play. Even if on paper, my last year wasn’t always where I wanted to be, I still feel that I had some really good highs. In February, I got to play Naomi in Dubai and I managed to beat her. On clay, I had some good wins as well, against Belinda Bencic and Ashleigh Barty in Rome. There were many tournaments where I felt I was playing well but just ran into better players at that moment. Everything pays off eventually, when you keep trying to hit higher levels week after week. I had some more wins over Top 10 and Top 20 girls that were great for my confidence and my game. The last two weeks with Shenzhen and Fed Cup were extraordinary. That doesn’t happen every week, that’s for sure!

On winning France’s first Fed Cup since 2003…
I put so much importance on that project and so much satisfaction from my team and from playing for my country. In all these years, I’ve never missed a tie because it’s a privilege to be there. I always wanted to be an example for the next generation of French players; I know how big of a tennis country we are and how many people we can inspire. It was always a dream of mine; when I was a kid, I was always excited to watch the National team; it gave me goosebumps! My roots, my education, coming from a very sporty family – my parents were professional athletes on sports teams – so representing my country was important.

The way it finished, it’s a hell of a story: going to Australia at the end of the season, winning three points and beat Ashleigh Barty, who was, without any doubt, the best player in the world, at that moment, having just won Shenzhen beat my teammate, 6-0, 6-0. I start and I was losing 3-0, and thinking ‘Oh my god!’ That was a huge challenge and when I look back, I’m very proud and happy. Before I went on the court, I really wanted to win, not just this match, but the whole tie. It wouldn’t have been good enough to just beat Ashleigh but lose in the end. There was plenty of energy spent but it was worth it.

On returning home as Fed Cup champions…
When we came back, I really had no idea it would have such a big impact for the whole country. From the first moments at the airport, we were like heroes! We landed in the morning, we had only an hour to put on our dresses and meet President Macron. He had very kind words towards me. I was really blushing! I couldn’t believe that he was following that closely. He ended up late on his schedule for that day because he spent so much time with us!

When we came home, it was just amazing to see the impact: all the support and messages. We had plenty of media things to do, but no matter the environment I was playing, people recognize me even more, and acknowledge the victory. France is a big country for sport, and any time we win a World Championship, everyone knows. It’s been great for French tennis; the French Tennis president told me how great it is for the next generation, and for all of the kids in France. That’s the best reward.

On winning two of three matches against World No.1s in 2019…
It’s really tough to describe, but it’s like, you spend all this time training, and you get the total right! It doesn’t mean I was playing flawless tennis, because I don’t think I was. I was really working my way, striving, and trying to find solutions, changing tactics to keep my opponent off-balance. But these are the best kinds of wins; it means that I can match the top players if I keep working to improve my average level. Tennis is a complete sport where you have to have the physicality, the mental and tactical aspects; it’s a combination of all these things.

On her continued doubles success doubles with Timea Babos…
Doubles only brings positives. This year, for example, I didn’t play as much as I wanted to with Timea Babos, because she was working on her singles rankings. We still managed to do great, and all the big successes just helped my confidence and experience. It also helped my tennis. We had some amazing matches throughout the year. In Shenzhen, we played Mertens and Sabalenka, who are amazing singles players. The trend, I feel, is also shifting in that more and more singles players are getting back to doubles. This lends even more quality to the practice.

When I play my best tennis in singles, I use my variety, my consistency off the return. I like to approach the net and hit slices. When I look back on my match against Ashleigh, there were so many situations where my doubles helped me to be capable of doing what I did in singles. Even the match against Kiki Bertens in Moscow, there was so much happening all over the court, not just classical baseline singles, but so much more. I have no doubt that doubles helps mel it helped me rebuild this winning mentality. I’m absolutely not afraid of any big challenges in singles because of what I’ve done in doubles.

On her coaching team…
My brother has really been helping me. He and my mom have been working as my coaches, and I’m very grateful for them. Sometimes a coach will let you down out of nowhere, so it’s very nice to have someone your family by your side. I never had to be alone in those moments because my family was very close. I don’t know how I would have dealt with those situations otherwise. There’s no pressure. With each year, and how I work, I know what I need, what is important, and I have two people in my brother and mom – she, in particular, learned some new things this year – who know me the best. I think we’re pretty complete and I’m excited for this new chapter.

On her goals for 2020...
My goal is simple: I just want to keep playing the way I’ve been playing because I know that’s how to get back to the top, and equal my best singles ranking, if not better it. I’m ambitious. I’m working on getting my average level higher and higher to give myself opportunities to go for big titles. It’s fair to say that 2019 gave me confidence in my tennis and I want aim for big things because I feel like I’m ready, mentally strong, excited and motivated – more than ever, and maybe that’s maturity, I don’t know!

I still have to qualify for the Olympics, but it’s a big goal, of course. If I qualify, it would be my third Olympics, which is something I would be proud of, even if it would make me feel kind of old! I would go there wanting to do great in every event I play, whether that’s singles, doubles, mixed. I’ll still play with Timea throughout the season. I made a move in 2016 when I switched to play with Caroline Garcia because of the Olympics in Rio. I’m happy to stick with Timea because she’s my best friend and my best doubles partner by far. If it happens that I play with Caroline at the Olympics, we proved during this year in Fed Cup that we didn’t need to play very much together; it clicked straightaway in Fed Cup this year. If we get to play together, we’ll be fine with just a few days of practice.

Before, I would be humble and say doubles is where I would be most ambitious, but even in singles, why not? Next year, I really want to push to come back where I was at my highest in terms of singles ranking.

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