It's been a long time between drinks for New Zealand women's tennis.
Marina Erakovic's triumph in the United States National Indoors in Memphis over the weekend was the first WTA tournament victory by a New Zealand woman since Belinda Cordwell won in Singapore 24 years ago.
Erakovic, who turns 25 next week, earned the winner's cheque of US$40,000 (NZ$47,600) when German Sabine Lisicki, a Wimbledon semifinalist, defaulted owing to illness after losing the first set 6-1.
That default may have removed some of the gloss for Erakovic, but she had lost her two previous WTA finals, so the tournament marked a breakthrough.
It wasn't easy. She had to save a matchpoint before beating German Annika Beck in the first round, and then had to struggle past Swede Sofia Arvidsson, who has won the tournament twice, and American Jamie Hampton, who has consistently had the better of the New Zealander.
Erakovic has been on the improve this year. After a rather undistinguished showing in Auckland in January, she reached the third round in Sydney, pushed world No 41 Alize Cornet to 10-8 in the third in the Australian Open and beat world No 25 Su-Wei Hsieh, of Taipei, in Pattaya City, Thailand, last month.
The victory comes at a handy time. Her world ranking, 71 entering the event, now leaps into the top 55 instead of plunging. And she'll gain hugely in confidence by winning such a prestigious event.
The United States National Indoors is the only professional indoor tournament that jointly hosts men and women. Previous winners include world No 1s Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, so Erakovic is mixing in illustrious company.
Erakovic has long been tipped as one to watch. She was coached early on by Chris Lewis, who helped her develop a solid all-round game, including strong volleys. On the world tour she has suffered bouts of bad form and severe injuries, so her ranking has been all over the place.
After fighting through minor events to get a foothold on the main tour, she reached No 60 in 2008, only to plunge into the 300s a couple of years later after a long injury lay-off.
She has had two disastrous Olympics. At Beijing in 2008, when she was ranked 49th in the world, she had a shattering loss to Ayumi Morita, of Japan, who was not in the top 150.
And in London last year she was feeble in capitulating to Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak 6-2, 6-1.
She seemed crushed on both occasions, which reinforced to me her pride in representing New Zealand and her determination to come back stronger.
The gritty New Zealander - born in Split, Croatia, but an Aucklander since she was a youngster - has fought back, reaching a career high 39 last year.
Her weapons are a big serve and a heavy forehand. But her serving is erratic and she's not the only woman out there with a strong forehand, so it was questionable if she would be able to make much more progress.
In her favour is her training ethic - she is among the fittest women on the tour - her fighting qualities and her constant imploring of herself to be more aggressive. The win in Memphis lifts her career prizemoney up to US$1.08 million.
She is already the second-best New Zealand female player ever, behind Cordwell.
This may be just the boost she needs to push on to the next level and really get among the big names. After the way she has overcome so many hurdles in her eight-year professional career, she certainly deserves it.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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