By DAN IMHOFF
Where many a highly touted prospect shrinks under the glare of home-crowd expectations, Kristina Mladenovic is one woman who relishes it.
As a former junior world No.1, the 24-year-old has long been tipped as the next great hope to resurrect French tennis fortunes.
And a series of high-drama matches at her home Grand Slam in Paris – namely a first-round upset of No.2 Li Na in 2014 and a high-quality defeat to Serena Williams two years ago – only fuelled that hype.
While the 2015 US Open marked her Grand Slam breakthrough, 2017 is where Mladenovic has really come into her own.
The first six months of this season saw her claim a maiden tour title in St Petersburg followed by finals in Acapulco, Stuttgart and Madrid.
Then came her second Grand Slam quarter-final on home soil, where she dethroned defending French Open champion Garbine Muguruza en route.
“I managed it really well proving I was playing well back to back. I showed that I was ready physically and mentally,” Mladenovic said ahead of her first-round Connecticut Open match against Timea Babos.
“It’s the timing. It’s maybe a down period now to come back stronger and improve even more than before. My body feels rested and fresh.”
That down period has seen the Frenchwoman claim just one of her past four matches on North American hard courts, a far cry from her first six months of the season.
“Not good at all right now, let’s be honest,” Mladenovic said. “I had an amazing many months in a row.
“I had to take a break after the grass and I feel like it’s been a long period actually without real tennis for me. Now probably a couple of weeks to get back into rhythm, find my game again.”
Given the hype heading into this year’s French Open and the subsequent reception with each three-set victory she ground out, Mladenovic would be forgiven for feeling the weight of expectation.
But it is attention she admitted she had had since a young age.
“I was world No.1 in juniors which didn’t happen for such a long time for French people,” she said. “Winning slam juniors and coming through on tour, I always had that pressure on my shoulders but I liked it and always enjoy playing in front of my home crowd.”
Not that it is without its challenges. As she has discovered, you’re never protected when you have a bad day. There is no disappearing from the public glare.
“But I really enjoy it and I think if you want to be good, it’s something you have to get used to,” she said. “I take it positively. I think it’s a privilege to have such pressure. It shows that people believe you can do great things.”
Fresh and ready to rebound in New Haven, those great things could well roll around before the season’s out, before those home-grown expectations mount again on the clay.