Meet Alison Van Uytvanck.
Roland Garros’ surprise package of fortnight is an understated 21 year old in the midst of a career defining tournament, haling from…Belgium?
“The Ginger Ghost” – as she has been dubbed on social media by a growing number of fans – might look like she comes from the land of shamrocks and leprechauns (she’s the only redhead in the Top 100), but would probably prefer a waffles and chocolate for breakfast over a bowl of Lucky Charms. #stereotypes
Van Uytvanck’s professional tennis career has gone by largely under the radar for even the most dedicated of tennis fanatics. Unlike fellow young Belgian An-Sophie Mestach, who won the girl’s singles title at the 2011 Australian Open, van Uytvanck had a far less prolific junior career, peaking at No. 19 in ITF ranking. Patience, as she remarks, was a virtue in her decision to take on tennis professionally.
In an interview with the WTA, van Uytvanck commented on the “normal” life she chose before committing fully to pro tour.
“Yes, I went to normal school. My parents said I could do it by correspondence, but I didn’t want this as I wanted to have social contact with my friends. It was always my priority to finish school and then to play tennis. I was playing lots of ITF $10,000s and I’d be at school for one week and then away for one week, but the school did a perfect job and helped me a lot.”
At 17 and on the back of several strong ITF results, the Grimbergen resident received a wildcard into the qualifying event of the inaugural Brussels Open. There, she fought her way through three rounds before upending former Top 10 player Patty Schnyder in the first round. Despite falling to compatriot Yanina Wickmayer in her next match, she would repeat her hometown heroics the following year.
The 2012 Brussels Open (which I had the absolute pleasure of attending) saw van Uytvanck go one round further, reaching the quaterfinals to play No. 1 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. The Brussels crowd was at its highest capacity that day — even more so than in the final, which featured Radwanska and an emergent Simona Halep — and viciously supported their home player who, as I overheard from many silver-haired tennis goers that hot and sunny day, “hadn’t made a name for herself…yet.”
With young history of extremely successful players, van Uytvanck, along with Mestach, is the next generation of Belgian tennis and the focal point of a fervent sporting country who has become used to seeing their players at the top of the game.
The Flemish Belgian (the country divides itself into French and Dutch/”Flemish” states) cites former Belgian surprise packages Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens are two of her closest friends on tour, and naturally looked up to Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin growing up, picking up a racquet at age five — as the two legends were making names for themselves on the pro circuit.
Sixteen years later, she’s trying to make a name for herself – and she has their support, among others.
Since those first Brussels wild cards, van Uytvanck, whose abbreviated nickname “AVU” may sound like a Law & Order spinoff (or a car model) has always had a flashy game that could make an impact – although fitting together the puzzle pieces of her tennis has been a slower task than she might have hoped.
Armed with a compact and shockingly powerful serve, she’s an aggressive baseliner, is unafraid to make forays into the net. Van Uytvanck’s forehand is her primary weapon, and improved movement and footwork has seen her better able to dictate rallies than in year’s past. Much like Flipkens, she plays with two hands on her backhand, but prefers slice to topspin.
Van Uytvanck’s 2015 results have been up and down. Following a mediocre Australian swing — where she was routined by Serena Williams in the first round — she played at Antwerp’s revived Diamond Games in her home country, losing a heartbreaker to eventual champion Andrea Petkovic, 6-7(7), 7-6(5), 6-2, having held eight match points in the second set before falling in the third — a pattern of big-stage fragility first demonstrated a year earlier against Dominika Cibulkova at Wimbledon (losing 8-6 in the third).
A few weeks later, she found form on the hard courts of America, qualifying for and winning a round at both Indian Wells and Miami before reaching the semifinals in Katowice. Earning just over $100,000 this year and amassing a 19-13 record coming into Roland Garros, it had been a satiating and steadily average year for her.
Then the draw gods decided to give her a slice of fortune.
The Belgian landed in a decidedly weak section featuring a slumping Eugenie Bouchard. With all the seeds in the second wiped out by the third round, she made use of her innately varied game to bamboozle the hard hitting players she faced, ultimately dispensing another Cinderella story in Andreea Mitu on Court 1, quietly earning a quarterfinal berth – and at least €250,000 in her bank account, which is well over half the pay she’s earned in her entire career.
In her next match, van Uytvanck faces 2015’s hipster favorite Timea Bacsinszky, who not only has a similarly difficult last name to spell has, but has also had an exceptional (albeit slightly less shocking) run to the quarterfinals. As the only unseeded player to make it this far — on a surface so far from the grass lawns she prefers — van Uytvanck is ostensibly overmatched.
But if there’s anything to be learned from this fortnight, it’s that nothing is impossible.
Hand: Right (two-handed backhand)
WTA Titles: None (1 WTA125, 10 ITF)
Career High Rank: No. 73 (09/22/2014)
Best Slam Result: QF (Roland Garros 2015)
Biggest Win: Zarina Diyas (No. 32, Roland Garros 2015)
Best Quote: “Yes, I went to normal school.”