In an era of selfies and social media, Kristina Mladenovic gets by with a little help from friends like fellow WTA Rising Stars Karolina Pliskova and Belinda Bencic.
David Kane
September 20, 2017

This article was originally published in 2015.

The WTA is hardly known as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Sweatbands. Intense rivalries in an individual sport can make friendships hard to forge. Many openly eschew the notion of camaraderie with competitors.

There may be few places for friendship on a tennis court, but what happens after the handshake?

"Obviously in matches you want to compete, be the best and beat your opponent," notes WTA Rising Star Kristina Mladenovic. "But once you are off the court, there shouldn't still be a match going on; you can be friendly and polite."

The World No.27 has certainly been at her best for much of what has been a breakthrough year for the all-courter. Achieving career-high rankings in both singles and doubles, the US Open quarterfinalist is preparing for her debut doubles appearance at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. Her bond with longtime partner Timea Babos is no mere bonus but, as she explained during the Toray Pan Pacific Open, a punctilious prerequisite.

"I only play with my friends, if not my best friends, on tour. That's my rule. It's actually so nice to be able to play with them. We laugh, we joke, we enjoy our tennis, and they are also very great players, so it's an amazing feeling to have great success together!"

Mladenovic and friends have had a fabulous 2015 on the doubles court, reaching 10 semifinals and winning four titles with Babos and fellow WTA Rising Star Belinda Bencic. A recent addition to the her inner circle, Bencic and the Frenchwoman first found common ground on the lawns of the Topshelf Open before Wimbledon.

"I met her this year. I had some practices with her earlier this season, and then played an epic singles match against her in 's-Hertogenbosch, where I could feel there was a lot of respect between us and a great atmosphere on the court."

Following the fortnight at the All England Club - where both lost to former No.1 Victoria Azarenka - the friendship blossomed at the Citi Open, and the two won the doubles title without dropping a set.

 

"She asked me a week before if I wanted to play doubles with her and that's where it really all started! We practiced together almost every day that week, and spent all day long together. Since then we became kind of inseparable. We have a very special connection; we understand each other very well and it feels like we've known each other since always!"

Joined by yet another WTA Rising Star in Karolina Pliskova - who is hoping to make a WTA Finals debut of her own in singles - the three were the talk of the Tokyo player party, posing as "Charlie's Angels" for a photo that went viral.

"I really liked the party in Tokyo," beamed Pliskova. "Sometimes it's good to have evenings like this. You can dress up differently than every day when you're going to the club to practice, and players also are having some fun together, which is not happening that often when you're playing a match."

 

If the tennis match is a friend-free zone, then the player party is its polar opposite.

"It's the occasion to spend some relaxed time with other players!" Mladenovic said. "But I especially enjoy it when my favorite girls are there too; then it's fun because, for example, in Tokyo we helped each other to choose our outfits, to get dressed and prepared."

Where Mladenovic and Bencic became fast friends, Pliskova is more like family to the Frenchwoman.

"I've known Karolina since we were around 10 or 11 years old. I met her at some European team competition or something like that. I remember that from the first moment, I clicked right away with her and her twin sister Kristyna; we were together all the time! I call her my segra, which is 'sister' in Czech."

The two were both successes on the junior circuit, each winning majors in girl's singles - Pliskova in Melbourne, Mladenovic in Paris - and going on to make their rise together on the WTA, even reaching a pair of semifinals this season in doubles at the Mutua Madrid Open and the Rogers Cup.

"I've known Kristina for a very long time," Pliskova echoed. "She is only a year younger than me, so from that time we saw each other quite often and we started to be closer; she is really nice girl!"

This generation wouldn't be the first to carry on friendships from the junior ranks. Speaking to press in at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, Caroline Wozniacki discussed the value of those early connections, made at a time when the WTA is more like a distant dream.

"There were 10 of us maybe that broke through at the same time," the Dane said of a crop that included herself, Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka, and Petra Kvitova. "It was nice to have that. We always had that bond in the juniors. We just kind of continued that once we got on tour.

"Many of us have known each other for 18, 19 years. It's crazy."

That base can be crucial, as Mladenovic admits her bond with Bencic is hardly the norm, and new friends can be hard to come by.

"I think it is very difficult to have genuine friendships on tour. For some reason and I don't know why, a lot of the girls are not very sociable and friendly. I feel like they think they need to be 'individuals' and are always in competition, even off-court!"

Pliskova agreed, theorizing that a player's ever-growing entourage can further insulate her from her colleagues.

"Everyone is already with her own team. Sometimes it's good to have someone from your team to talk to because it's not easy to spend the whole year traveling alone, but girl talks always helps!"

 

Mladenovic elaborated on what constitutes "girl talks" on the WTA, and while tennis is invariably on the menu, little else is off the table in these barn-burning conversations, the likes of which are barely different to those had between friends not vying for major titles.

"With my few best friends - that includes Beli and Kaja - we are together almost all the time and we literally know everything of each other's lives so we talk about everything: our profession, tennis, hobbies, family, relationships, boys, etc."

Can that closeness impact the competition? World No.1 Serena Williams once said she wouldn't even go to dinner with players during a tournament, for fear of losing that emotional edge.

"I get along with a lot of players, but I get too emotionally involved," she said two years ago in Rome. "I start liking people too much and it gets too hard to beat them."

Williams has since found the balance between friend and opponent, playing quite a few classic matches with good friend Wozniacki. The latest cadre of challengers is attempting to emulate that perspective.

"We played twice; once was last year when she beat me. This year, I won," Pliskova said of her bourgeoning rivalry with Mladenovic. "We actually went to warm up together before the match because we didn't have anyone to hit with, so that's really funny!

"We just took it like a match and not a life-or-death serious thing. On court we were both focusing on tennis and not on friendship. After the match, we were together in locker room and we talked like normal; everything was OK."

Mladenovic dropped their most recent encounter at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, but believes matches between friends have the potential to be even more entertaining than the icier rivalries one might instinctively prefer.

"I think the most difficult part is when you play someone you know so well, it's more about a tactical aspect. You know each other games so perfectly that it's a lot more about mental toughness and who is going to be smarter tactically and commit better to win."

The big server from Saint-Pol-sur-Mer takes a mature tact in her approach to tennis, keenly aware that, at 22 years of age, she is truly having the time of her life - and that life is best lived with friends.

"There is tennis on one side, but on the other side there are experiences, life lessons, and getting to know a lot of people.

"It would be so sad to travel and spend it alone, especially when we see each other all year long!"