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Secure in game and blanket, Riske advances at Wimbledon

June 28, 2013 04:55 PM
Alison Riske received a wild card into Wimbledon after qualifying and advancing to the semifinals of the tune-up event in Birmingham, England.
WIMBLEDON – Alison Riske has carried the same blanket around with her since she was a baby. Now 22, she no long uses it to keep herself warm at night, but she admits that she still gets security from it, just like Linus from "Peanuts" fame did his.
"It's not exactly considered [a blanket]," Riske said of her good-luck charm. "A rag is being generous, actually, because you [can now] hold it [in the palm of your hand], even though it was four feet by four feet. It goes everywhere."
Riske is secure enough in her own age and character now to at least be able to leave the blanket back in her room instead of packing it on her racquet bag. And she has never looked more sure of herself than during this year’s Wimbledon.
On a rainy Friday, she took another big step forward in her burgeoning career with a dramatic and well-played 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Urszula Radwanska. With the win, Riske, who had never before won a match at a Grand Slam event, advanced to the third round, joining Serena Williams and a pair of other promising American players in 20-year-old Sloane Stephens and 18-year-old Madison Keys.
Riske went toe to toe with the very skilled younger Radwanska sister – the other being world No. 4 and 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska – never losing confidence on a surface she loves, even though she had lost to her foe the last time out. Riske needed a marathon last game in order to close things out but stayed strong through some wobbles.
On her second match point, she went for an outright backhand return of service winner that just missed the line. Some member of the crowd screamed out prematurely in delight thinking she had won the match. Riske broke out in a big smile.
"I had to laugh because he was from my camp and he thought I won," she said of one of her supporters. "I screamed because I was like, ‘How do I miss that?’ And then he was like, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, ‘No celebrating yet. It's not over.’ You had to laugh because his reaction was priceless."
So was Riske’s. They went back to deuce, and running way out wide with Radwanska approaching the net, she nailed a backhand pass down the line. The next point was a grinder, one hard forehand cross court to the next until Riske opened up down the line and forced Radwanska into a backhand error. 
A long day of waiting for the rain to stop and to get on court ended in satisfaction.
"It always just comes down to me playing my game," Riske said. "That's the bottom line.  Whether I went here or there a little bit more, that all differs with how I'm feeling out there and how I feel like she's reciprocating what I give her, what she's giving back to me. I just try to play my game, be aggressive and stay in it until the end."
A native of Pittsburgh who now lives in Maryland, Riske considers fellow American player Melanie Oudin to be her best friend and is also close with another U.S. player, Shelby Rogers. The three once rented a place together when they were working out at the USTA Player Development Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla. 
She recalls Oudin’s miracle run to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals, hoping to duplicate it at the All England Club.
"Obviously I was extremely proud of her," she said. "I was hoping that she was going to keep rolling. I wasn't really surprised, because she has a way about fighting herself, too, that I think is really unique."
Even though many of the younger U.S. players get along well, they are competitive with each other and frequently say they push each other to new heights. Oudin’s run was inspiring, even to her own age group.
"I don't really think like that, but to some extent, yeah, if she can do it maybe I could, too," Riske said.
Riske once turned down a full scholarship offer to Vanderbilt and moved to Hilton Head, S.C., to train year-round. College life could have been nice, but she wanted to focus on her tennis and believed at the time that her game would mature more quickly in the pros. The right-hander has no regrets that she made the decision, at least on a gloomy yet super successful day at the All England Club.
"I can't say that I do," Riske said. "I obviously would not be sitting here.  This is something that's so extremely unique and special.  I definitely wouldn't trade it for the world."
A jovial person with a good sense of humor, Riske will head out to the cozy and very loud confines of Court 14 on Saturday to face the big-hitting Estonian Kaia Kanepi for a place in the second week of Wimbledon. 
Riske is an unassuming person who doesn't want a lot of attention, so much so that she keeps her Twitter account private, very uncommon for a young athlete with a public profile. She may change that in the coming days but promises she won’t bring her blanket/rag on court with her. However, if she best Kanepi, she may allow to media to grab – and therefore the rest of the world – a peek at it.
"We'll see about that," she said.
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For more Pro Tennis coverage, including coverage of Americans at the 2013 Wimbledon, go to the USTA.com Pro Tennis page


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