By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - After a promising start to her career, Kristina Mladenovic looked set to join the long list of talented French tennis players who failed to make it to the top - until a shock French Open win against Li Na put her back on the launchpad.
The 21-year-old kept her composure in a 7-5 3-6 6-1 first-round defeat of the 2011 champion from China, also this year's Australian Open winner, which cleared her path to a possible grand-slam breakthrough as she returned to her childhood support to make progress.
"It means really a lot, especially at a grand slam. It proves that I'm here and it gives me more strength to continue," said Mladenovic, who will take on world No.45 Alison Riske, of the United States, in the second round.
Mladenovic dropped to 103rd in the world after reaching a career-high 36th last year, but now believes she has an obligation to capitalize on her win on court Suzanne Lenglen.
"When you beat Li Na you don't think about losing in the next round," explained Mladenovic, who is of Serbian descent.
"It would be a shame (to lose). I'm going to enjoy this and I will have a lot of expectations for myself in the next round."
Mladenovic's career had appeared to be on the right path when she won the juniors' title at the French Open in 2009. But just like many other French players before her, she never managed to fulfill her country's lofty expectations.
Her only WTA title came in 2012 when the six-footer, who likes to put a lot of pace into rallies, prevailed in Taipei.
A couple of grand-slam titles in mixed doubles, with Canadian Daniel Nestor at Wimbledon (in 2013) and the Australian Open (in 2014), followed. But that is not enough to satisfy the ambitious Mladenovic, who has made drastic changes this season.
"This year I beat (Simona) Halep at the Paris Open. She's No.4 in the world today, and I knew that I was made for this stuff," she said.
"I'm a tennis player, I know that. I'm very ambitious. I have never hidden that.
"I was a bit fed up with the coaches I could find on the tour," she said.
"I tested them. Last year, by mid-year, when I was in the top 50, when I wanted to invest in a coach, I thought, 'I want to find someone so I can be in the top 20'.
"Unfortunately I had some mishaps, or not a good match, between the coach and myself. By match, I mean a good fit."
So Mladenovic decided to turn back the clock to where it all began, hiring the American tour coach Yannick Hesse, her best friend's father, who used to take the two girls to children's tournaments.
"I thought, I'm going to focus more on simpler things, more family type of things, entourage, the people surrounding me," Mladenovic said.
"A simple structure. He's almost like a second father for me. Whenever we had tournaments for young girls at the age of 14, 16, 18, he was there. We have a special relationship, he and I."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Robert Woodward and Neville Dalton)