The New Alison Riske: Potential Olympian and Top 20 Tennis Player

Alison Riske

The average American tennis fan who tunes in to the see the grass courts of Wimbledon or the night match action of Flushing Meadows until this year probably does not know anything about Alison Riske. They still may not. I don’t blame them, the top 100 on the WTA tour is rife with American players, 16 women to be exact and more importantly 7 in the top 40. Riske hasn’t finished amongst the latter in the past 3 years (ending the year at 63, 70 and 41.)

Before this year, the lack of attention adds up. Riske went to a smattering of WTA international finals, winning just one and earning a Top 10 win about once a year. A regular year for most top 60/70 players. Commentators frequently tagged Riske: “a grass court specialist”, “a fighter”, “a player who loves playing in China” but one who consistently “doesn’t have the power to compete with [name top 10 player]. These taglines seemed particularly true on the day of the 2016 Nottingham final where she went up against Karolina Pliskova and duly lost in straight sets 7-6, 7-5. However, what was also notable, like many other matches against Top 10 players at the time, she had 4 set points in the first set and 1 in the second but failed to convert any. After the match, Riske disheartened said she “felt like I gave myself a lot of opportunities. I had a lot of different chances, and whether it be that she served an ace or she played a really good point, the opportunities were gone.”

This 2019 WTA tour started like many before: a WTA international final in Shenzhen China, where she has made 6 out of 9 of her final berths, losing to Sabalenka. This was followed by a mediocre winter hard-court season followed by a winless clay-court season. However, in the words of every tennis channel commentator without fail, “the grass-court specialist” came to play in June winning both ITF Surbiton and a WTA International Title in S’Hertogenbosch, defeating number 4 Kiki Bertens in 3 sets. This was followed by a dazzling run into the quarterfinals of Wimbledon beating Donna Veckic (#22) Belinda Bencic (#13) and ending world number 1 Ashleigh Barty’s hopes in the round of 16. She eventually came up against Serena and although gave her a tough 3 set test eventually lost in the final 8. Although still playing up to her various monikers, the year seemed different already 2 top 10 wins and wins against players like Bencic who will finish close to the top 10.

After the Western Southern Open in Cincinnati, she reached a new career-high ranking of 36 and had an average US Open. Then she went to China, and in regular Riske fashion, then she did astoundingly well at WTA Premier Mandatory Wuhan reaching the final after defeating two top 10 players in Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina only to eventually come up against her rival from earlier the year in Sabalenka and loose in 3 sets.

Today she sits at number 20 in both the WTA rankings along with the race to Shenzhen. She has accrued the same number of top 10 wins as in the past 4 years combined along with many more wins against highly ranked players like Kerber, Bencic and Wang to boot. Alison Riske is fourth in line to qualify for the Olympics (the ranking deadline fortuitously comes before the grass-court season) and is 500 points away from her frequent doubles partner Jennifer Brady who sits in fifth.

So what has changed? She has lived up to all her sobriquets, nailing the grass-court season with the most wins on tour (9-2) and 14 if you count Surbiton. She is still very much a fighter winning 13 out of her last 17 3-set matches and frequently going the distance and has reached another two finals in China, a place she has had much success. However, is she still incapable of powering past the best? An answer could be found in her match against world number 3 where she outhit the Ukrainian in winners 25-11, a stat that is more commonplace than not in her matches in 2019. Riske has done a great job of combining her well-known consistency with perhaps a newfound power best described by Aryna Sabalenka “This backhand down the line; this makes me so angry at you. You have to teach me how to do this. It’s unbelievable!”

This newfound ability to hit winners with accuracy proves to be a deadly combination, and a small amount of credit may be due to her new coach this year Billy Heiser. But, one might suspect that’s not entirely it, again Sabalenka made that comment in January at Shenzhen before she had her incredible year. Riske might argue that the ability to power past them has always been there, in fact, she said about as much:

“I always thought I was good, but I never really kind of embodied that. In the big moments, I wasn’t really delivering.”

If you look at the match against Pliskova in 2016 at Nottingham compared to any of her big wins this year, Riske’s newfound belief in the big moments is evident and reveals why this year has been her most successful.

Just last week she failed to convert a combination of 8 match points and 14 match points against Ajla Tomljanovic. She still prevailed. The Riske of yesteryear wouldn’t have. She’s no longer the sum of her nicknames. She’s surpassed them. She most likely with qualify for the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai and it will be hard to see her not qualifying for the Olympics. This is a new Alison Riske.

She withdrew from Tianjin this week needing mental rest but almost definitely will be back for the Elite Trophy in Zhuhai where she will go to battle with some of the best players in the world, and I wouldn’t bet against her outlasting and even out powering a lot of them. I’m sure Ali Riske wouldn’t.

Main Photo: