Anatomy of a losing streak

Published by Matt Trollope

Kristina Mladenovic went 15 matches and six months without a win - before returning to form in a big way in St Petersburg and Fed Cup (pictured); Getty Images
We chat to Nicole Pratt about how pro tennis players can get mired in disheartening losing streaks – and what it takes for them to turn it around.

Kristina Mladenovic has won 12 of her past 13 matches in singles and doubles.

The Frenchwoman, after combining with Timea Babos to win the Australian Open women’s doubles title, headed to Saint Petersburg – where she was the defending singles champion – and reached the final. She then won all three of her Fed Cup rubbers last weekend – two singles and one doubles – to help France secure a 3-2 victory over Belgium.

She’s striking the ball as well as she ever has. Yet not so long ago, the situation was far less buoyant. In fact, it was downright dire.

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When Mladenovic fell in the opening round of the Australian Open in singles, it marked her 15th loss in a row. By that point, she hadn’t won a singles match in six months, dating back to her first-round victory over Tatjana Maria in Washington DC. She won just three sets during that slump, the nadir of which came in Tokyo, where she fell 6-0 6-0 to then 57th-ranked Wang Qiang.

This was a winless streak approaching record length. The longest WTA losing streak belongs to Aranxta Rus, who lost 17 straight tour-level matches in 2013. On the men’s side Donald Young also lost 17 times in a row while Vincent Spadea holds the record with 21 consecutive defeats, which occurred almost 20 years ago.

Mladenovic attempted to remain upbeat. She focused on the positives after close losses in Zhuhai in November and Brisbane in January. And she said after her Australian Open doubles triumph there was no reason why that success couldn’t translate to her singles game.

But according to former tour player Nicole Pratt, the Frenchwoman was likely just putting on a brave face.

“At the end of the day, you as a tennis player don’t want to show your vulnerability to your opponents. She would be saying she’s OK with it, that it’s going to turn around. And she’s probably saying those things to herself. But deep down you have those doubts of: can I do this again? Not even string matches together – just get across the line and get (one) win,” Pratt said.

“Every single player (on tour) would know if someone’s on a losing streak like that. And there’d be a certain amount of empathy in the locker room, by the way, because a lot of people have gone through that themselves. Everyone would start to freak out a little bit when you’re looking at five, six (losses) down the barrel.”

Pratt knows the feeling. In 2003, beginning with a loss to Lindsay Davenport at Amelia Island, Pratt endured a nine-match losing streak that extended three months throughout the entire European clay and grass swings. The former world No.35 had just a few months earlier advanced to the fourth round of the Australian Open – her best ever Grand Slam result – and was becoming accustomed to life as an ingrained top-50 player.

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Mladenovic was ranked even higher, but like Pratt, had been enjoying unprecedented success before her lengthy slump. In the first half of the 2017 season she’d reached four WTA finals – winning in Saint Petersburg – and by July was verging on the top 10. In a quirk of the 52-week ranking system, she actually cracked the top 10 in October despite, at that point, having lost 10 matches on the trot.

Pratt said that, when a player is mired in such a slump, they typically “go back to the drawing board”. In practice, they’ll focus on basic fundamentals of the game, remind themselves of what was working prior to their losing streak, and keep their processes simple as they head into matches, hoping everything will come together on the match court. They’ll also work harder, because there is a feeling of urgency to improve in order to stop the rot.

Another response is to change up the staff, with players perhaps seeking a new coach or trainer in the hope a fresh voice will offer renewed perspective and motivation. Mladenovic revealed in Sydney that she’d sought the help of former top-10 player Janko Tipsarevic – who was rehabbing an injury and was available during the pre-season – for that very reason.

The Frenchwoman finally snapped her unfortunate streak in St Petersburg in February, courtesy of a straight-sets win over Dominika Cibulkova.

And from that point on she’s barely looked back, winning five of her last six singles matches and playing like the previous six months – which she had herself described as “terrible” – had never occurred.

“It’s just getting over the hurdle of literally just winning that one match. You know you can do it, but when that last point is played and you go to the net and shake hands, it’s like this weight is just completely lifted off your shoulders,” Pratt said.

“I think that’s what happened with Kiki in Saint Petersburg. She was carrying this burden, this weight, and then all of a sudden she wins her first match, and then everything’s light and loose again, and she’s started playing that quality of tennis again that obviously got her to the top 10.

“It’s a complete mental shift. And it’s belief again. You work harder (during a slump). All of that work’s actually in your back pocket – it’s just the mentality and belief that needs to change. And once it does, then you’ve (already) done the work to get better in all the different areas. So then it just kind of clicks into place.”

The same week Mladenovic enjoyed a return to form, Eugenie Bouchard reached her first WTA quarterfinal since Madrid in May 2017 when she advanced to the last eight in Taipei City.

Bouchard peaked at world No.5 in 2014 reaching the Wimbledon final and Australian and French Open semifinals in one glittering year. But she barely finished inside the top 50 at the end of 2015 and 2016, and by the close of 2017 had fallen to No.81.

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While not enduring double-digit losing streaks like Mladenovic, Bouchard’s form woes have extended several years since that breakout season. Prior to her Taipei City quarterfinal she’d lost 12 of her previous 15 matches, and she now languishes outside the top 100.

“I think we’re still seeing Genie’s world change so much from the year she broke through,” Pratt said. “Potentially she’s still just coming to terms with the fame, the recognition, the expectation. She’s very active with sponsors and all of that takes time away (from her tennis). She probably wasn’t doing that (off-court commitments) before.

Just when it seemed Bouchard was finally recapturing some momentum in Taipei City, she was smacked off the court, 6-4 6-0, by world No.152 Wang Yafan of China. While Mladenovic was able to push on after overcoming her slump, the young Canadian’s struggled are perhaps more entrenched.

“I look at someone’s game (and I ask myself) are they evolving? Is their game improving?” Pratt said.

“And (with) Genie, in some elements, there are some areas where she’s limited. She doesn’t have the feel and the variety of a Kiki, for example. There’s a sense of where do I go from here? And the game is constantly getting better.

“If she hasn’t evolved as a player and worked on improving her weapons and minimising the weaknesses, then you’re going to get found out. And I actually think that’s a little bit of what we’re seeing with her.”

As Mladenovic skips away, it’s back to the drawing board for Bouchard.

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