The Riske worth the reward
NEW YORK -- Carol and Al Riske will be watching their daughter Alison's fourth-round US Open match Monday, but they will be at home in McMurray, Pa.
It will be the biggest match of their 23-year-old's life when she faces off against 48th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova. This coming after the biggest win of her life, a straight-setter over No. 7 seed and former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova this past Saturday. There is not a hiding place in the USTA National Tennis Center adequate enough for the Riskes.
The precedent speaks for itself.
"Al hides in bushes, behind cars, pine trees, buildings. He can't be visible [during matches]," Carol said with a giggle.
Once, Ali's older sister, Sarah, a former pro herself, played a match when she was younger and afterward met her family in tears.
"Dad," she wailed, "I heard you hissing like a turtle."
"But how?" her father said, "when I was hiding in the forest?"
"I heard you crunching pine needles," she replied.
Another time, Ali was playing in Hilton Head, and her opponent lofted a high return, a sitter just begging to be crushed back, and Al couldn't help himself.
"He yelled 'Yes!'" Carol recalled, "and Ali missed it. They'll never let him forget it."
Al Riske is a former Secret Service agent for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Carol is a former English teacher for grades five through 10. If their children are nothing if not superstitious, they are nothing if not respectful of it.
"If I were to show up [Monday] and put on sunglasses and a hat and sit high in the stands and thought for a second that I threw her off …," Carol said. "Ali is a thinker and she doesn't forget a thing. So I'm not willing to jeopardize that for her, and she's not done yet. She's just so happy to see her name still there."
Riske, the only wild card remaining in the draw, was ranked 150th two months ago. She broke into the top 100 in July after a third-round Wimbledon berth, and one way or another, will find herself in the top 60 (she's now No. 81) after the US Open concludes.
"I've been coaching women for a long, long time and if they don't feel comfortable out there, they can have a million-dollar game and they end up doing two bucks with it," said Riske's coach, Yves Boulais. "They need to feel comfortable and sometimes it takes time."
It has taken Riske a bit longer than some expect from tennis players nowadays. "There were definitely times of doubt," Riske said.
Once, in her midteens, a problem with her back (eventually corrected in part by a strength program), kept her off the court for seven months and worrying about her future in the game.
College was a possibility, but two weeks short of committing to Vanderbilt, where Sarah, now 32, played No. 1 singles, Ali backed out of her verbal commitment when a family friend offered to sponsor her pro career.
"That was really tough," Carol recalled. "She was doing so well and we knew, like we did with our oldest, that college and college tennis would be beneficial for her. But she has the talent where it would have been a setback.
"But I know it did affect her. Even months and years later, she questioned it. Things didn't go the way she thought they would quickly enough, and she began second-guessing. We talked to her and said 'You've got to be patient. Take your time, believe in it and trust yourself,' but we knew it would happen. … Now she is convinced she did the right thing. Now she sees it."
As she looks back, Riske agreed. "I'm definitely in a better place."
She was introduced to the game by her father. "He always wanted his kids to be in an individual sport so they could kind of determine their own destiny," Riske said. She progressed through the ranks gradually, training under various coaches. For a time, when training with Boulais full-time became too expensive, Riske traveled for two years with Sarah, who was also coached by their father.
Ali said she loved it, once responding to the question of whom she would bring along to a deserted island. "My sister [because] there would never be a dull moment," she said. "It wouldn't matter if we were stranded and never found."
"Sarah was a blessing," their mother said. "She thinks ahead and worries ahead. We knew that Ali would be safe with her. She took good care of her and still does."
Against Hantuchova, 30, who has made 50 Grand Slam appearances, Riske will once again be the underdog.
"These matches become not about the players anymore, it becomes the event, so it's like anything else," Boulais said. "If she can go out there and feel comfortable, good things can happen. It's not a done deal. It's the one who manages the situation better is the one who's going to end up winning the match."
Riske, who has taken online business classes from Penn State, is an avid Steelers and Penguins fan. She is popular among her fellow players and the troupe of young Americans all slowly climbing up the ranking.
"It's so cool," she said. "It's a really good group of girls. It's neat that we're kind of putting America on the map."
Boulais said he and his wife, Patricia Hy, a former world No. 28, consider Ali a member of their family.
"She's not princess-sized," Boulais said of a young woman who travels with a remnant of her baby blanket. "Everyone wants to help someone like this. She's a nice person, has a good heart. She tries hard; she's honest. What you see is what you get.
"It's fun to help someone like this. This is a person who, it's not about the money. It's not about anything but just that she's developing great relationships and she can get anything she wants from being like that."