Alison Riske is an WTA tour member who represents the United States but who has an important connection to Ontario. She comes to Mississauga in the off season to train with her long time, part-time coach, Yves Boulais. Ontario Tennis took the opportunity to meet with Alison in December when she was training at Ontario Racquet Club. Alison had recently cracked the top 40 in world ranking and although she comes to tune up her game at the club, she modestly shares her experience, her engaging positive attitude and time with the young players in the ORC Academy, by hitting with them. On the day we met with Alison, she was hitting with Katherine Sebov. (Sebov, who turned 18 in January, 2017, reached the semifinals in an ITF 25k (Orlando) and an ITF 100K (Midland) and represented Canada in Fed Cup, winning her singles matches to give her a 4-0 record and thereby helping the team move on to the World Group II playoffs.)
Since we spoke with Alison, she has had some strong results. She was a finalist at the Shenzhen Open, knocking out the top seeded Agnieszka Radwanska en route to the final. She reached the 3rd round at the Australian Open by defeating Shuai Zheng, seeded 20, and in February she played for Team USA in Federation Cup, beating Andrea Petkovic of Germany. Most recently she beat Coco Vanderweghe, seeded 11, in the first round in Dubai.
Q.I gather you started playing at the age of 3 with your father? Was all your early tennis always a family affair?
A.I did start playing tennis when I was 3 - at least I had the racquet in my hand by that point. Tennis was always a thing I did with my dad. My older sister and brother did play as well and when I came along I pretty much didn’t have a choice. My dad was retired by then, so I was his next project. It was always time to be spent with dad. I never wanted to leave my mum, so it was a big problem. I always wanted to be doing girl things with my mum. My dad would say, “Let’s go play tennis” and I’d start crying and throw a fit. But he’d take me out there and we were playing together. He never missed a lesson from age 3, with him, through high school.
Q.Who were your heroes growing up?
A.I actually didn’t watch too much tennis growing up. I did catch a little bit of Monica Seles playing on TV and I loved her grunts, I loved her tenacity and if I did have to take anyone in the tennis world who I would mention as being a “hero” for me it would definitely be Monica Seles.
Q.At what age did you realize that you had potential to be a good national and international level player?
A.Being a national or international player really never occurred to me, I was kind of on my own path. I always envisioned myself going to university and then possibly pursuing professional afterwards. I pretty much just focussed on my path Things unfolded the way they did and I never saw it coming. I don’t know if it’s something you can ever be ready for. But I’m really grateful for the way it has panned out.
Q.How did you manage playing tennis as a junior? Did you enter lots of tournaments? Do you feel the tournament structure at home was important in your development as a world class player?
A.My junior tennis training life was all based in Pittsburg. I was in Pittsburg until I was about 15 or 16 when I did make a move down South to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Our lives revolved around tennis. My parents made a lot of sacrifices, not only for me, but for my older brother and sister as well. There was a lot of training involved, a lot of holidays missed because I was out playing a tournament and there was a lot of travel involved. Tennis was our life.
Q.How important was your high school tennis?
A.My high school tennis – it was an awesome experience because I got to be a kid and just do what a regular high school student does which was play on the team. I was enrolled with an online tennis program, but the school district I lived in allowed me to play for the high school team and we did win state championship and I won the individual myself. It was a really cool experience. To this day, I still talk with a couple of girls on the team and they offer their support when I’m playing in a big match and I definitely made friendships during that experience.
Q.You won the USTA National Collegiate Clay Court Championship?
A.I did win that Championship. It was held in the neighbouring township so was really convenient for us and we didn’t have to travel far. I was 15 or 16 so I was young and beating up on the college players. It was really fun for me. I really enjoyed that and it was a good experience because friends and family could make it and see me compete.
Q.You signed a scholarship opportunity with Vanderbilt but started to have some good results and decided to turn pro. Do you have any regrets about turning pro?
A.No I definitely don’t have regrets turning pro. I did sign with Vanderbilt in 2009 I had every intention of playing with the team there, but I had a sponsor come out, he was a family friend who offered to finance me until I could support myself. That pretty much changed my whole direction. If it wasn’t for Tom, I wouldn’t be here today so I’m extremely grateful to him.
Q.When did you meet up with Yves? And why did you decide to train with him?
A.I met Yves when I was 14years old. At that time my sister was 23, she had graduated college and she was playing on tour herself and through one of her friends she had met Yves and said, “I love what Yves delivers on court. I’m going to move there and work with him.” Once she was there for a couple of years she said “Ali you’ve really need to meet this coach - he’s awesome. I think he’d be great for your tennis!” So I’ve worked on and off with him since I was 14. We’ve had a couple of years where things logistically haven’t worked out so I wasn’t with him. Ultimately, Yves has been a huge influence on my tennis.
Q.What specifically made you decide to train with him?
A.I could go on and on about how great I think Yves is as a tennis coach. And just as a mentor, almost like a life coach in general. I think he has so much to offer mentally which, I think, is a huge thing in tennis, because there are so many ups and downs So it’s key to have some there to support you throughout all those moments and keep things in perspective. Yves does an amazing job of that.
Q.Since you turned pro in 2009, you have played all over the world; it sounds glamorous, but I’m sure there are some tough times as well. If you were to advise some of the young up-and-coming players about the ins and outs of the pro tour, what would you tell them?
A.Life on tour is not always glamorous –there are a lot of good things to it and there are a lot of tough times – I think the biggest thing is having the right support team around you. It might take you years to find it, but when you do, do not let them go! I think that’s the one thing that has transformed my career, Yves has been a huge part of that, and I hope Yves can stay with me throughout the rest of my career.
Q.Again, thinking of the young aspiring players who want to go pro, it can be very hard financially for a player to stay on tour – especially in the early years. How did you manage when you started out? How can an ITF tour player economize?
A.Tennis is very tough sport, it’s very expensive from a very young age – a lot of parents everywhere make a lot of sacrifices for their kids to be able to do it. I was lucky enough to have a sponsor when I first started playing professionally. That transformed my whole experience because I didn’t start with a deficit. I think at this time, in tennis in general, prize money is as high as it’s ever been and it keeps going up each year. So I think, ultimately, it’s a great time to be playing tennis and we’re very fortunate.
Q.What other interests do you have off the court that keep you occupied between matches and tournaments?
A.There’s a lot of down time in between matches – during that time I don’t tend to do anything but rest, eat and do very basic things just so I don’t get tired. At the end of the day I love listening to podcasts, it’s something I’ve been obsessed with It’s kind of nice to get you mind off tennis. I love to read. I spend a lot of time on Facetime with family and friends when I’m away. There’s a little shopping involved, when I have the time. I consider that hobby too I guess.
Q.If you had to describe to someone what type of player you are, what would you say?
A.I would describe my playing style as an aggressive all-courter – I like coming to the net when I have the opportunity. I spend a lot of time and work with Yves coming forward and I like to be able to take advantage of being at the net. I hit a pretty flat ball. So I would say all-courter.
Q.Tell us about your training regimen, both on and off the court.
A.I’m typically on the court four hours a day, in addition to 1 to 1.5 hours in the gym That’s pretty standard Monday to Friday. Saturday - completely off and Sunday I maybe hit for and hour or two getting ready for the coming week. Definitely a lot of activity. I’m always exhausted by the end of the week.
Q.What about your tournament scheduling – do you build in breaks from competition to train and recover?
A.My tournament schedule requires a lot of work in planning the year with my coach. It does change depending on how I’m doing. I add if I need a couple of extra matches or if I play too many matches, I scale back a couple of weeks. Of course, I have an idea at the beginning of the year of how much I would like to play, but it does change as we go.
Q.What do you consider the highlights of your career?
A.I have had some really cool moments throughout, and hopefully they’re not over. I have to say reaching the 4th round of the US Open was my biggest result in a Grand Slam. I got to play doubles with Serena in Fed. Cup which was a great experience. In ITF circuit, even though it was ITF not WTA, I won three tournaments in a row - that was a huge moment in my career, to know I could maintain that level for three weeks straight. And last, but not least, winning my first WTA.
Q.What are your goals for 2017?
A.I hope to continue what I had in 2016. I thought it was a great year for me and I learned a lot – I think if I just keep focussing on my game and stay positive. Taking each day one day at a time, giving it my best shot. That’s all I can ask of myself.