Raquel Kops-Jones (l) and Abigail Spears advanced to their first Grand Slam semifinal in Melbourne.
© Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia – The U.S. duo of Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears are not siblings, but on court and off, they communicate like sisters.
They have been playing together since late 2007, and on Tuesday they reached their first Grand Slam semifinal, with a 6-4, 6-0 win over Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Shahar Peer at the Australian Open.
Kops-Jones and Spears had reached two Slam quarterfinals before, at the 2008 US Open and 2012 Wimbledon, but had not been able to reach a final four before now. They are both good athletes with big games, but their heads weren’t always in the right space.
“It’s up to us to take it; 99.9 percent of it is mental,” the 31-year-old Kops-Jones said.
In order to release their minds on changeovers during tense matches, the duo will sometimes discuss things other than tennis, talking about songs or something relaxing or even joking about their opponents.
The two are very close and capable of finishing each other’s sentences. There are times when a point is over that a simple stare and facial expression is enough to communicate.
“Sometimes you need to say something, and other times I know what she is thinking. It’s a bit of both,” Kops-Jones said.
Spears added with a laugh, “Body language! We always get warnings for taking too much time, and I tell the umpire, 'What do you expect? We are girls.' When we are really tight, sometimes it’s more like, 'Hmmm, should I do this? Do I feel like that? What do you think, Raquel?'”
Kops-Jones is a native of Fresno, Calif., who now lives in San Jose, Calif., while Spears is a native of San Diego who now lives in Colorado. The two started 2014 in Sydney, where they nearly upended the top-ranked team of Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani in a match they felt they controlled.
The duo said the key to its Australian Open run was off-season preparation. After a grind of a 2013 season in which they played 25 tournaments, they went to their respective homes, relaxed and then headed to Virginia to work with their sometimes-coach Stephen Huss, who is the men’s assistant coach at Virginia Tech.
They worked on their fitness, but more importantly, they did hours and hours of intense drills daily, which helped them get in even better shape. While doubles success remains their focus, they also played practice sets in singles.
“We felt really fit, and we played singles [in Sydney], and we felt really good,” Spears said. “We did so many drills, and the balls just kept coming. We would do two-and-a-half hours of practice, and then took a break and went again. Sometimes it was like [cardio tennis].”
Currently sharing the No. 24 ranking, the two are hoping to not play as much as they did in 2013 but to perform better at the big events. They won back-to-back titles at the Emirates Airline US Open Series events in Stanford and San Diego last summer, but they did not do well at the Slams, even though they did push Venus and Serena Williams hard in a 6-4, 6-4 loss in the second round of the US Open.
“It’s always a grind, and at the end of the year, we always say we are not doing that next year,” Spears said. “Asia hit us hard.”
In 2012, they nearly made the four-team WTA Championships. The qualification went down to their final match in Moscow, where they fell to Russians Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova, 7-5, 6-4.
“That was a great experience,” Spears said. “We had never been in that position before, and everyone was against us. It was awesome.”
This year, they are taking aim at the WTA Championships again, which has expanded to eight teams. The key to their qualifying will be winning matches against elite teams.
Spears and Kops-Jones believe they are late bloomers and think that more positive results will come with more experience. Both women like to serve and volley and try to attack, but they have found themselves playing too defensively in tight spots. They say that it is in those moments when they have to play more aggressively to try and push the nerves away.
"We have to force ourselves to do that because my initial reaction is to be defensive if I feel myself pushed up against a wall, so she has taught me to do the reverse so I can work past it,” Kops-Jones said.
The eighth-seeded Spears and Kops-Jones, who will play the the third-seeded Russian team of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the Aussie Open semis, also want to make sure to play smart, but they know playing from the gut can be a better option at times.
“You are always taught to play percentage tennis,” Spears said. “But when it gets to the point where you need to play risky tennis, then you have to play risky tennis. We don't do well playing safe.”
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