Prior to yesterday this is what I knew about Kristina Mladenovic: She's French, Serbian by blood, people who follow the juniors and ITFs had not great things to say about her on-court antics, and she seemed cool with Team Serbia, who let her sit in their box during Tuesday's tie. So basically it was two checks in the pro-column (She's Serbian and Ana's cool with her) and two checks in the con-column (French and rumored bad sport). I was willing to keep an open mind.
Now before I get into the nuts and bolts of it, let me disavow you of what you're probably thinking. "Oh, she's just pissed because Mlad beat Laura." I can assure you that's 100% not the case. The kid turned me from a non-fan to a hater before the match was over.
Deliberate gamesmanship. That's really what it all boils down to. I personally have never had a real problem with the amount of time people take between points. What I learned last night is that I don't have a problem with the amount of time people take between points SO LONG AS THEY'RE DOING SOMETHING WITH THAT TIME. Rafa's clearly got a toweling off, fidgety routine that takes a while. Masha's got her whole hopping, hair, staredown thing. Nole with the ball bouncing? He was trying to work out his nerves. I never get the sense that any of these players were doing it intentionally for the sole purpose of putting their opponent of their games.
Not so with Mlad the Impaler. This was hands down the most I've ever been annoyed while watching a tennis player. You would have thought 20 lbs weights magically strapped to her ankles the minute a point was over. Her molasses-laden steps to the back of the court to towel off, over to the ball kids to get four balls or more, inspecting each and every ball, slowly dribbling the discarded balls so that the ball kids had to go out of their way to retrieve them, then a good 7+ second stroll to the baseline just to stand there for a good 5+ more seconds just...standing there, and then, 30-40+ seconds after the last point, FINALLY SERVING.
You know those spy movies where a room has motion sensors installed so that the spy has to move, like, one centimeter per second so as not to set off the alarm? Well you would have thought the Impaler was Sydney Bristow and the Burswood Dome was the Rambaldi vault in the bowels of SD-6. Except no, you wouldn't, because Sydney's the worst spy ever and you know she wouldn't be able to move that slow. She'd set off the alarm, Arvin would get away, and Irina would show up with a gun to her head leading to another unresolvable cliffhanger. "Mom? Are you really going to shoot me?" Cue techno music.
Wow. I'm clearly the most easily distracted writer ever.
ANYWAY, what struck me about Mlad was just how intentional it all was, especially when you contrast it with Robbie's fairly quick pace between points. Laura, for better or worse, is ready to go immediately. On Robbie's serve, the Impaler would just take her sweet ol' time toweling off, leaving Laura to just stand there for 7-10 seconds waiting for her. One of my favorite parts of the match was toward the end of the third set when Robbie started bouncing the ball to serve before Mlad was even 5 feet to the line to return. That's my girl.
Being only a year apart in age (Mlad's a year older), you know they've come across each other numerous times in the juniors. They know each other's games (and perhaps personalities) well. Mlad wasn't playing this slow against Bethanie the other day. She was just doing to fuck with Laura. And Laura knew it. When the Impaler took a ridiculously long bathroom break between the second and third set (because you just know she would) Robbie seemed to be shooting some rather bemused, eye-rolly looks over to her box.
None of this means the kid sucks at the tennis. The Impaler has a big game: big forehand and a big serve that could take her far if she can work on consistency. She's also not scared of the net so there's some variety.
But you know me. As I have proven over the years, my tennis fandom has so little to do with a player's actual skill and more to do with whether I want to give them a high-five or punch them in the face.