Peters Township's Riske ready to tackle Wimbledon
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Alison Riske was in the players' lounge at the Aegon Classic tournament in the United Kingdom when she received a call granting her a wild-card entry into Wimbledon. Great news. But more pressing matters loomed.
"I was in complete shock," Riske said Tuesday from London. "My first thinking was, 'Oh my God, I have to play [Maria] Sharapova tomorrow and I just found out I was in the main draw at Wimbledon. I'm not sure if I can focus.' "
Riske, a 19-year-old from Peters Township, earned her wild-card bid into Wimbledon's main draw, which begins Monday, with her play in the Classic, where she reached the semifinals by beating No. 3 seed Yanina Wickmayer, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3. She lost to Sharapova, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, Saturday. That performance raised her world ranking to 146th, 10th among American women.
"This is the best tennis I've seen her play at any time," her older sister and coach, Sarah, said.
High praise, considering Riske's career. She was the No. 1-ranked player in the country by the USTA in the girls' under-18 singles and won the PIAA and WPIAL Class AAA state championships for Peters Township High School in 2006. Riske won the singles title at the 2007 National Collegiate Clay Court Championships, which earned her a spot in the U.S. Open qualifier that year.
Jan Irwin, Riske's former coach and coach of the girls' tennis team at Upper St. Clair High School, saw her talent firsthand.
"I've taught thousands of children. I'm 53 and I've taught her since she was 7," Irwin said. "And there's no one like her."
Riske played only one season of high school tennis because of her USTA juniors tournament schedule, and she attended the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School online. She had a scholarship to Vanderbilt, just like Sarah, a former All-American tennis player for the Commodores who also played professionally, but decided against it two weeks before she was to start.
"From the outside, people don't understand, but it really was possibly the easiest decision for me now looking back on it," Riske said. "At the time, it was difficult.
"I'm 19. I'm not 19 forever."
By all accounts, Riske is the nicest and most competitive person her coaches and family have encountered. Riske's tennis career has always been a close-knit affair: Her parents were involved with her tournaments, and her coaches became close family friends.
On the court, she is a winner. Irwin said she puts on a "different hat" when playing, and Riske's mother, Carol, said Riske learned to balance respect with the desire to win.
"She is tough on court," Carol Riske said. "Off court, she's a butterfly."
After turning pro in 2009, Riske had scattered success but had better results recently when she started playing on grass courts.
"That's a perfect fit for her game," said Jim Jones, another of Riske's former coaches. "I think if you look through her results she had some good results during the clay-court season, but the last two tournaments have been on grass and she's really broken through. She hits a really hard, flat tennis ball, which is a really tough ball to handle on the grass."
That flat trajectory was not an intentional addition to Riske's game, Irwin said, but a natural result of the way she hits the ball.
"We tried to actually incorporate more spin in Ali's game because it's hard when you don't have a Plan B," Irwin said.
Sarah Riske said, that she believes Alison can play this well anywhere. That stems from the improvement of Riske's volleys, something she has worked on for a while but now uses in matches.
"I always thought that my volleys were one of the best parts of my game. It's just really being brave enough in order to incorporate it in match play," Alison Riske said. "Against people of this level, I feel like if you want to come out with the W, you have to take it to them."
She took it to Sharapova, breaking her serve in the second set and hanging tough when she was down, 15-30, at 5-4. She forced a third set, but Sharapova took over.
"Up until that third set, I felt like I was able to hold my own," Riske said.
That feeling of holding her own, Riske said, may be the most important arrow in her sling as she heads into Wimbledon.
"Honestly I think it's just believing that I belong here," Riske said of her approach to Wimbledon. "If you do that, then you're pretty much good to go. Everyone here is talented and has the opportunity to beat these players, but it's who believes in themselves."
First Published June 16, 2010 12:00 am