Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Jade Lewis to clash with Venus Williams in ASB Classic

Jade Lewis will play her first WTA level match in the ASB Classic today, when she clashes with Venus Williams. Photo / Photosport
Jade Lewis will play her first WTA level match in the ASB Classic today, when she clashes with Venus Williams. Photo / Photosport

On the surface, Jade Lewis' match with Venus Williams looks like one of the great mismatches in ASB Classic tennis history.

The Kiwi wildcard Lewis carries a world ranking of 1099 and has never played a match at WTA level.

Lewis - the niece of former Kiwi great Chris, who famously reached the 1983 Wimbledon final - has only just turned 18 and spent the past two years mainly on the ITF circuit.

Williams is about to begin her 23rd year on the WTA tour and has played almost 1000 matches, including 14 grand slam finals (winning seven). The American is entering - surely - the final phases of her career but remains a force, reaching the Wimbledon semifinals last year and is the second seed at this tournament.

To put the disparity in perspective, at the time that Lewis was born (in December 1998) Williams had already played in seven WTA finals - including the US Open - and had three titles to her credit.

It's a lions versus lambs situation, made possible after Lewis was granted a wildcard into the event. She is New Zealand's most promising young player, and impressed everyone with her performance in the ASB Classic qualifying last year, which she took former Auckland semi-finalist Lauren Davis to three sets. Lewis also won the recent New Zealand Championships, showing her mental strength in the final against Paige Hourigan.

Lewis, who is coached by her father David, a former ATP professional and Davis Cup representative, spent most of 2016 grinding away on the ITF circuit.

It's a hard slog - Lewis banked just over US$4000 last year - and sometimes earned as little as US$98 from some tournaments. Apart from Davis, the highest-ranked player Lewis faced in 2016 was a Dutch opponent ranked 256.

Williams is in another stratosphere, but Lewis is taking a "nothing-to-lose" approach.

"She's a legend of the game and obviously people won't be expecting me to do too much," said Lewis. "I'm going to enjoy the match and make the most of the opportunity. That is all I can do."

Father David doesn't normally watch his daughter play - "I get too nervous, too emotional"- but he will make an exception today, though new Tennis NZ High Performance director Simon Rea will in the coaches box.

David recalled a similar David and Goliath scenario in his career, when he progressed through qualifying in Milan only to be drawn against world No 6 Jimmy Connors. "I was playing well for my level but playing on centre court, a big crowd and everyone there to see Jimmy it's quite overwhelming," said Lewis.

"For a young player it's hard but for someone like Jimmy or Venus, it's just another match, just like getting out of bed for them."

For her part, Williams knows her career is winding down, but gave no indication that she was ready to take her foot off the throttle. "There is a ton of work that comes with being out here. You can't even show up to the smallest ITF event without being prepared ... if I am prepared them I have expectations."

- NZ Herald

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