Some players are only happy if they win Grand Slams. For others, a Top 10 win or a quarterfinal appearance is a reason for a cheer.
And, for some, a mere set can be a step in the right direction.
That’s certainly the case for No. 499 Alexandra Mueller, who stormed her way through quallies at the Citi Open this week, and then pushed Heather Watson to a third set in their first-round match.
It was the first set in a WTA main-draw match that Mueller, 25, has won in her career.
Everyone has to start somewhere.
I sat down with the personable and up-beat Mueller (who you should follow on Twitter) a day after her loss to Watson. Though disappointed, she knew that there were a lot of positives to take from her week. In fact, just being able to play the tournament at all was a surprise.
Last weekend, Mueller came to the tournament fresh off of a Round of 16 appearance at the Lexington Challenger. She was 10 places outside of the qualification-draw cut-off at the Citi Open, and didn’t think that she would even get in to play. But she took a chance and made the trip anyways. It paid off.
Mueller got into the draw and was scheduled to play Vera Dushevina in the first round of quallies, but Dushevina withdrew after a run to the quarterfinals of Stanford. (She did end up coming to D.C. though, and ended up winning the doubles title.)
This was a big break for Mueller, who certainly took advantage. In her first quallies match she took out fellow American Ashley Weinhold, ranked No. 383, 6-0, 6-1. She then defeated 14-year-old Usue Arconada 6-1, 6-1 to make the second main draw of her career (her first was also in Washington, D.C. in 2011).
In the first round, she faced Watson, who is currently ranked No. 76 in the world and healthy for the first time all year after a bout with mono. The 21-year-old Brit was ranked as high as 39 earlier this year.
Their match ended up being during a time of day when it was the only active match on the grounds, so despite the fact that it was on the smallest court–Match Court 2–it drew a huge crowd. They were all vocally supportive of Mueller.
Though she lost the match 7-6(5), 4-6, 3-6, it was impossible to tell that over 400 ranking spots separated the two players. Mueller is much more talented than her No. 499 ranking suggests.
“I knew I had to play really well to have a chance against her,” Mueller told me. “I felt like I did that. I felt like I was going for my shots, playing as well as I could. It was cool that I just got in and played close to my best tennis.”
“I’ve always known that I had the ability to play really well, better than that ranking. I think it’s just that I haven’t played well consistently through out the year. I have a good week, then a couple of weeks not so good.”
“I think the higher-ranked players play well consistently for months at a time. I definitely need to work on that.”
Mueller has 174 wins in her career, and almost all of them have come on the ITF circuit.
“Usually I play Challenger level ITFs, and sometimes there’s no one watching. I just think that, you know, when you get a taste of being at a tournament like this, it’s so motivating,” she said about her time at the Citi Open.
“It’s cool to have that support. Just to hear applause when you hit a good shot, it really does mean a lot.”
On the lower ranks, there are no reporters breathing down your neck, no nation watching your every move, and sometimes not even a team around you to provide pressure and support.
“It definitely requires you to have motivation from within,” Mueller admitted. “Sometimes you’re traveling on your own. I mean, I’m lucky enough to have a coach of my own, but not everyone has that. You just have to believe in yourself and train every day and focus on where you want to be.”
Earlier this year, Mueller won her seventh ITF title at the 10K event in Buffalo, taking out comeback-bound Alisa Kleybanova in the final.
For winning that title, she won 12 ranking points and $1,568 in prize money. For qualifying and then losing in the first round of the Citi Open, the lowest-tier tournament in the WTA tour, Mueller got 11 ranking points and $2,075.
For her, these were big checks. Pay days like that don’t necessarily add up quickly.
“My parents really support me. They help me out a ton, and I’m super grateful for that,” she said when discussing finances.
But she recognized that everyone didn’t have that advantage. “There’s things you can do on the ITF level to help. They offer housing, they offer school visits sometimes or pro-ams where you get a few extra dollars to help out with expenses. Not all of them offer lunches and stuff like that, so that can be hard. It’s just, it’s a grind. You do what you can.”
Getting a taste of the way the other half lives on the WTA tour was a treat for Mueller this week. The crowds and amenities at the ITFs are more hit-or-miss.
“Some [ITFs] do a really good job, some are really great. Others are like a tent. It’s like a park with a line of courts, with like a tent and a port-a-potty.”
“Sometimes, when you’re in a place like that, you know, you really gotta love it.”
Mueller has always wanted to be a tennis player.
“My parents didn’t play,” she said. “My mom was a serious swimmer. They took me to the local country club when I was young, and I tried lots of sports, but once I played tennis I didn’t want to do anything else. My mom was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to keep doing swimming or basketball?’ I was like, ‘No!”
At a junior tournament in Pennsylvania when she was only 10 years old, her parents spotted a coach, Scott Lambdin, working with some of the other players. They thought he looked like he knew what he was doing, so they ended up hiring him to work with their daughter.
Fifteen years later, they’re still a pair.
Mueller had success early on. She started training down at the USTA facility in Key Biscayne with Lambdin when she was a teenager, and won her first ITF event, a 10K in Mont Tremblant, Canada, when she was only 15 years old.
But a wrist injury that required surgery derailed her career when she was only 17, and she’s had a hard time getting her career fully back on track since.
Mueller is probably most well-known for being the very first U.S. Open Wildcard Playoff winner back in 2010.
“When I won that, it all happened so fast. I went out there to Stanford to play the national playoff, and all of a sudden I was in the U.S. Open, so that was a huge deal for me. I think that it’s super cool they have that.”
With that victory, and her repeat performance in 2012, she won a wildcard into the U.S. Open qualification tournament. She didn’t win a match either year.
Mueller has a very aggressive and striking game. At 5’11”, she has a serve and forehand that can knock her opponents off of the court, and her backhand can control points too.
From the outside it certainly looks like she has the weapons to at least compete on the WTA tour on a consistent basis.
Her goal is to break into the Top 100 next year, which is far above her career high ranking of 280 back in 2009. In order to get up there, she knows she’s going to have to make some changes.
“I’ve been making more of a commitment to my fitness. Starting now,” she laughed, specifying that she was going to start taking recovery more seriously. “Sometimes if you lose a tough one it’s so easy to just lay down, not do anything, and get away from it. But I think that’s not what is professional. You have to go into the ice bath, get a massage, do stretching. Things like that that aren’t really fun, but have to be a priority.”
“I just think now I’m starting to feel the most comfortable as I’ve felt on court with my game, just finding what’s comfortable to me, how to feel, how to play out there. It’s been an ongoing process and it’s now, hopefully, coming together.”
Mueller said part of her plans for improving were to stay positive and learn from her losses. When asked about what she would take from this week, she gave her biggest smile yet.
“Just that I know I gave it my all, and that I’m getting closer.”