Marina Erakovic ready to turn the tide

New Zealand sports fans are known for having high expectations. So when Marina Erakovic steps out onto centre court at the ASB Classic next week there'll be those ready to jump on her with size nine boots on if she doesn't emulate her success this year where she made it to the semifinals.

Erakovic may still only be 20 and spend most of her life overseas these days, but she knows what's coming.

"I am aware that there's high expectations and I'm aware that I did well this year," Erakovic told Fairfax Media of her achievements back in January, where she knocked out tournament top seed Vera Zvonareva 6-3 2-6 7-6 in a thrilling match that stopped the nation.

She lost to Aravane Rezai in the semifinal but for a few days the country was obsessed with the Croatian.

Nearly a year on, she's the tournament's main drawcard despite Elena Dementieva being the top seed.

Erakovic knows that with the anticipation comes expectation.

"It will be tough, there'll be more pressure but then again I need to be realistic as well," she said, before revealing that she is still recovering from an injury which forced her to miss tournaments.

"I did have a bit of a foot niggle and it has set me back a bit," she said.

"I plan to be 100 percent for the Classic but I don't think I will.

"People will have to be aware of that as well. I always go into a tournament wanting to win it and that's what I'm going to do this time."

Erakovic will still play the doubles,

"I would like to have the matches," she said.

"I was keen to play in Japan at the end of November but I couldn't, then I wanted to go to Dubai and I couldn't do that either.

"So playing doubles and singles will be good practice and also match play for the Australian Open.

"Even though the ASB Classic is important and I want to do well in my home town, my sight is set on the Australian Open and to be 100 percent for that."

Spending more time in New Zealand than scheduled has given Erakovic a chance to experience the things other people her age do, like hanging out with friends and family.

"I've had a chance to do normal stuff 20-year-olds do," she said.

"I don't get to spend much time at home, so this time of the year is special for me."

2008 was a year of two halves for Erakovic.

Between January and June, she won 34 matches and lost 12, between July and December she lost nine and won just two.

"I know that these questions would come up [about her form slump] but in all honesty there's no real answer to it," she said.

"There wasn't a thing I could point out and say this is where I went wrong and should have done this.

"It was tough, I had a great start to the year but not a great finish to it.

"Then again, this was a big year for me, I played all WTA events, I was still learning about things like doing my scheduling and travelling.

"I had a lot of matches and I guess I went a little too quickly into things.

"Maybe I should have taken a break, maybe I should have come home, maybe I should have done more training.

"It's things like that I can learn from when looking at next year."

It has still been a tremendous 2008 for her. She reached No 49 in the world in July (she's now at 66), made three WTA semifinals, won an ITF tournament in Surbiton and beat players like Zvonareva, Michaella Krajicek, Sania Mirza, Alona Bondarenko and Aleksandra Wozniak.

But for Erakovic, the match that stands out the most is the one against Italy's Tathiana Garbin in the first round at Roland Garros.

Erakovic led 5-3 in the third set before the rain fell and washed out play for the next two days.

When it resumed she needed just two and a half minutes to grab the required match winning game.

"It was just a matter of being ready for it," she said.

"The nerves were high and I really had to deal with the situation. It was a tough match and I think I handled it well."

In a profession where everyone knows how much you earn, .Erakovic raked in $412,140.84 this year which puts her among the top earning sports people in the country.

She's still quite frugal even though she can afford to treat herself.

"I wouldn't like to say I'm cheap but I'm aware of how much I spend," she said.

"I actually bought a really expensive pair of jeans the other day and it hurt me to see how much they cost.

"But I have treated myself and my family."

She has recently taken on Brenda Perry and Paul Wilkes to help her out with the management of her career, realising it was time to ease the burden on her family.

"My dad did a lot of that stuff for me like dealing with the media, looking for sponsorship and requests to do this and that," she said.

"My dad works fulltime and I needed someone to take care of that sort of thing.

"Especially now when there's more of it and I'm at a higher ranking.

"Brenda and Paul offered to do a bit of work for me to help out and I accepted.

"They're very good people and they're aware of the business in New Zealand, so I think they can help me quite a bit."

With the amount of money Erakovic is now earning she no longer receives funding from the Seed Foundation, an independent group set up to substantially fund promising tennis players.

"I wouldn't be where I am without them because I couldn't have done the amount of travelling I've done to get to the tournaments" she said.

"Everything costs money and they were a huge help, especially in taking the load off my parents who had supported me.

"I knew I'd get to a certain stage where I was going to earn something and be self-sufficient, so there'd be no need for Seed but I've grown to know the people there and they're still a group of people I keep in touch with."

It's been Erakovic's goal to be a successful tennis player since she was a small girl.

Working her way up the junior ranks to inside the top 100 has been a momentous task for her.

So now she's achieved it, is it how she expected it to be?

"I think so," she said.

"My first real big match on the WTA Tour was against Lindsay Davenport (in the semifinal of the Memphis hardcourt tournament in March) and I really wasn't expecting her huge strokes, even though I'd seen her on TV.

"But as you play more you see the players and you get used to the situations at tournaments.

"I was expecting it to be pretty grand with big name players and crowd events with a great atmosphere and that's something I expected.

"But the amount of travelling and luggage carrying wasn't something I was expecting.

"When I was little I thought by travelling around the world I'd get to see great things. I never calculated the waiting at the airport for five hours, planes being cancelled and luggage being lost."

Sunday News