Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Marina Erakovic back in the spotlight and at a crossroads

Marina Erakovic trains for the ASB Classic in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Marina Erakovic trains for the ASB Classic in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Marina Erakovic will soon be bouncing back into our national sporting consciousness.

Like burnt barbecue sausages, beach cricket and camping ground capers, Erakovic has become an integral part of the Kiwi summer.

For a few weeks in January - at the ASB Classic and Australian Open - she is a focal point for our sports media, before her annual journey out on to the WTA tour, and into unfriendly time zones around the globe.

The ASB Classic is her time to shine, an opportunity Erakovic hasn't always handled well. After her memorable run to the semifinals in 2008, she won only two matches here in the following six years.

It's a little unfair, given the unpredictable nature of early-season form and the length of the tennis calendar, but her results in Auckland tend to get magnified beyond their importance.

Erakovic admitted in 2014 that the expectation and pressure here was sometimes a mental burden, but equally she loves playing in her home town.

"It's very special," says Erakovic. "It's always good to see people that have known me since I was coming through the grades at Kohimarama. They have supported me and it feels like a team effort when I come home."

Erakovic saw a lot more of home than usual last year, after a knee injury ended her season prematurely at the US Open.

Rehabilitation took time - "I tend to heal a lot slower than your average Joe for some reason" - but she also enjoyed the time away from the endless cycle of flights, hotels and tournaments. She studied, caught up with friends and had the novelty of some weekends away.

Now it's back to the serious business, trying to find a way back up the ladder of the WTA tour.

Being at #135 in the world ain't great, but she has had it much worse. In 2009, a hip injury sidelined her for the best part of a year, and her ranking drifted into the 300s.

"That was very stressful," says Erakovic. "Back then, I could play eight [WTA] tournaments with a protected ranking, including one grand slam. I lost to Li Na in the first round of the Australian Open and I thought, 'crap, that puts the pressure on'. Then I had seven tournaments left, then six, five.

"Now I'm a lot more mature, lot more confident in my game. I'm not too fussed. The ranking is a number, and it can change drastically with one tournament."

But it won't be easy. Erakovic's route to most events will be through qualifying, a punishing schedule of three games in consecutive days, usually on outside courts with minimal spectators. It's a true dance of the desperates.

"Things change a lot," says Erakovic of life outside the top 100.

"The tournaments you play, the scheduling, the financial aspect - there is the same amount of money going out but less coming in. It is hard, but the most important thing is to get out there and play. I am confident in my abilities but it will take time to feel comfortable and get matches under my belt."

Erakovic had an ordinary 2015. She reached the last four in Thailand and won five matches in Birmingham from qualifying for an overall 17-19 record.

But Erakovic also fell at the first hurdle in all four grand slams, though she pushed then world #4 Petra Kvitova to the limit in Paris.

It feels like Erakovic's career is at the crossroads, and not for the first time. At 27, she has reached "middle age" as a player, with the depth in woman's tennis getting stronger every year. Her forehand loses nothing in comparison with most on tour and her first serve is a good weapon. But her opponents will continue to target her second serve, and her backhand - especially the slice - still looks vulnerable.

"It's vital for her to be injury free," observes former professional Barbara Schett-Eagle, who won three WTA titles.

"Twenty-seven is not that old and she has plenty of experience. With one good tournament, she can be back in the top 100 and then everything changes.

"If she is still willing to travel and put in the hard yards, then she'll be fine, but it's important to get some early momentum. The longer she is outside the top 100, I don't know where the motivation goes."

Erakovic still seems to have plenty. She hates airports and the constant flights, but otherwise enjoys life on the tour treadmill. And she is still out there doing it in the biggest global sport for women.

Her achievements are probably taken for granted, and might not be appreciated until she has retired. No other New Zealander - male or female - has come close to taking the court in a grand slam singles match in the past decade. Erakovic has contested more than 20 majors, going past the first round 11 times and reaching the third round twice.

She has been a constant at the ASB Classic over the past decade, a period in which no other New Zealand female won a match.

Erakovic has also won a WTA title, reached three other finals and beaten top-20 players like Victoria Azarenka, Sabine Lisicki and Sara Errani. But she has also fallen frustratingly short on some big occasions when she had the chance to make a mark, particularly at the 2012 London Olympics, Wimbledon in 2013 and Australian Open in 2014.

Erakovic hopes to play for a "few more years yet", which would give her the longest professional career of any New Zealander since Onny Parun.

"As long as I am healthy, playing good tennis and competing at a very good level, then I will keep playing," says Erakovic.

"If there is a time when my game is not cutting it, then I would reconsider things. At the moment, I feel my tennis is at a good level, so why not keep going and see where that takes me?"

- NZ Herald

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