DUBAI, UAE - Former French No.1 Kristina Mladenovic began her 2018 off-season knowing something had to change, and displayed her most obvious improvement to dismiss Naomi Osaka in her first match as the new World No.1.
“We sat down at the end of last year and said, ‘Okay, what's the problem?’” she recalled at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. “I felt so many matches against quality players, from baseline and the game in general, I was fine, I was battling, I was good.”
Even as her doubles continued to soar with childhood friend Timea Babos - winning the Australian Open and the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global - the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinalist had stalled in singles since making her Top 10 debut that same year, dropping to a three year low of World No.67 just in the last few weeks.
“So often I was struggling on my serve, having many double faults, low first-serve percentage, and opponents were attacking my second. So many matches I felt like I lost because of my serve. That was not acceptable for me because I believe it has to become a weapon of mine.
“Last year I had few periods where I played well, some periods where I reached finals, or at Wimbledon, I was in third round against Serena Williams. I realized why I played good, because the serve was working well during those tournaments. I'm like, That's not good enough. It has to work more consistently.”
The Frenchwoman took to tinkering, and emerged this season with a new service motion, one similar to how she served as a junior and far less abbreviated than anything she employed as a senior.
“I changed my swing,” she demonstrated in her post-match press conference. “I used to go up, and now I go full swing from down. I also changed my grip, which was maybe more extreme. [Milos] Raonic serves like this. Unfortunately, I didn't have Raonic's serve!
“It's like more natural. I still think there's still lots of room for improvement, but I see positive signs. Talking with my team and the people with whom I practice, they say it's better with my toss, and maybe before you could more easily read my serve. Now the toss is a bit more the same for any kind of target. So I'm happy about it.”
Against Osaka - one of the game’s most aggressive returners - she struck four aces and zero double faults, maintained a 56% first serve percentage and won 59% of those points, and though she lost serve four times, she held her nerve to not only serve out her first win over a reigning World No.1, but also avenge a loss to the Japanese youngster at this event one year ago.
“It felt a lot like a déjà vu because was exactly same court last year. Even though she didn't have yet her two slams under her belt, if I'm not wrong, straight after she won Indian Wells. I could see from that point already last year she had amazing talent, potential, and good form.
“I tried to be more composed on the serve today. I know it was lots of breaks, but I have to give credit to her. I think she was ripping those second serve of mine amazingly because the speed was still quite okay, 120, 130 km/hr for a kick serve. For a girl, it wasn't bad.
“Compared to last year, I managed to force her to overpower a little bit more. Obviously in tennis, it's about statistic, winners and unforced errors. I'm happy I was better today.”
A Dubai resident, Mladenovic has shown solid tennis at this tournament in years past, shocking Karolina Pliskova back in 2017, and will play for her first quarterfinal on Wednesday against Spanish veteran Carla Suárez Navarro.
“I worked a lot to change some things, to maybe go a step back to just improve and come back where I was, which is Top 10. It's my goal.
“But I'm not really focused on the paper, but more like what I produce on the court. Even if the outcome wasn't positive today, I would have been happy about the game because I feel my tennis is good again.
“It's just a journey. There are ups and downs, but I'm definitely happy because that's a big performance. I know I've beat in the past Wozniacki, Halep, but I'm not sure if I ever beat the current world No.1. It's a nice thing, for sure."