Kristina Mladenovic got a lot right in her fourth round-win against the 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza on Sunday. She rose to the occasion, elevated her game and by the end of the match, had reduced her opponent to a mere sideshow in the course of their three-set battle.
But there was one detail that Mladenovic got majorly wrong. Not just for the day, but also for the remaining few days that are left in the tournament.
Stade Roland Garros: Where fandom is a nationality of its own
Neutrality is a rarity for the spectators at the French Open – and its American counterpart – with the crowd raring to go against every player who is not French or who has been adopted as one of their own, like say, Roger Federer.
With there being a clear dearth of champions emerging from the host nation – Yannick Noah was the last Frenchman to have won the men’s singles title in 1983, while Mary Pierce lifted the women’s singles title at the turn-of-the-century in 2000 – every time a native player takes to the court, it’s as if the fans feel dutybound to push him on.
This year, with a spate of early round exits in the men’s draw and three Frenchwomen raising their national banner, led by Mladenovic, the fans are feeling a bigger need to do their bit to give the player an additional shot of motivation.
What’s a player at the receiving end of such dedicated fan-following to do in such situations? The player could either be accepting of this encouragement as due, but continue to play on unaffected, thereby allowing the opponent also to concentrate on the match at hand.
Or, do as Mladenovic did. Soak it in, revel in it and fuel it by drawing out the gathered fan base at the Suzanne Lenglen to pump her on raucously, not only when she came up with winners but, more often than not, at the expense of Muguruza’s errors. Thus, carrying out an exercise of riling up the crowd so against the opponent that it bypasses the concept of fair play.
Mladenovic’s sudden rise: Little too soon for her to adjust?
There’s a particular irony that stems forth when Mladenovic is cited for lack of fair play, when she had made a rousing case about it when talking about Maria Sharapova’s perceived lack of integrity at the time of the Russian’s wild card-ridden comeback in April.
The 24-year-old’s unfazed attitude in speaking her mind about the multiple-time Grand Slam champion was reinvigorating, at a time when it was felt, by and large, the sport was bending itself backwards to accommodate the Russian back into its fold. There was also a keen sense of expectancy surrounding her, with those not knowing much about her game or her persona, wanting to know more about this tennis pro, who had (seemingly) newly sprung among the relatively well-rooted names.
Mladenovic’s unbending tenacity throughout the first three rounds, which saw her push past two relentless American opponents and her own shaky back that had threatened to give up on her, added to her stock-pile of ever-growing fan numbers. Between these earlier matchups and her pre-quarter-final, Mladenovic undid all that she stood to represent for tennisdom, specifically women’s tennis, which is still coming to grips with the numerous fluxes that have come its way.
Her behaviour against her Spanish rival, who broke down in tears in the middle of her post-match press conference, distraught at the treatment meted out to her, then perversely made Mladenovic out to be an elitist. And alongside, as a loudmouth coming across a player who has built up her own notion of grandiose that’s nowhere close to reality.
Will turnabout be fair play for Mladenovic, when time comes?
True, she is still a contender prowling at large through the draw, which is far widely open than it was before the tournament had even begun. What she isn’t, however, is a champion. Credit where credit’s due, none of tennis’ recent champions have sought to employ such deprecating traits, or have harboured any hopes about using them positively to enhance their professional portfolios.
The spectators on the stands won’t be so quick to turn on Mladenovic, just yet. For one, she’s still their biggest bet of finally getting a French titlist – or finalist. And then, there’s her overwhelming acknowledgement to them lending unwavering support to her, evidenced off late after her match against Muguruza. Eloquently verbose, the emotional Mladenovic pointed out, “I love playing in front of you. You give me the courage and strength to keep going in every point. It’s thanks to you that I’m through and we’re in the quarters, yeah!”
However, for the relatively far-flung tennis audiences connected to the tournament through the distance of their TV sets, Mladenovic has become anathema. The one player, who couldn’t get past her pettiness in trying to win through. And, with many among of these audiences likely to come and attend other tournaments, even the other Slams, Mladenovic may as well be prepared to bear the brunt of harsh reciprocity coming her way. Regardless of whether she emerges as a Major champion, or not.