Tennis: Kiwi champ holds court with a great

By Julie Ash

For rising New Zealand tennis star Marina Erakovic, it doesn't get much better than this.

Fresh from her junior Australian Open doubles triumph, the 16-year-old spent two hours yesterday slogging away on an Auckland court with Monica Seles.

Seles, whose career was derailed in 1993 when she was stabbed on court by a crazed fan, is in New Zealand for two exhibition matches against another former world number one, Martina Navratilova. The first is in Auckland tonight, the second in Christchurch on Thursday.

Erakovic, thrilled to get a hit-out with such a great player, says she admires Seles' courage and tenacity.

"I was kind of nervous when I came but she is such an easygoing and nice person it just disappeared. "It is not just her game, it is more her determination and her will on the court. I love that in her."

While most would struggle to return just one of Seles' hits, Erakovic seemed to connect with almost every ball that came her way.

"She is still hitting the ball great ... so I am just wondering what it was like when she was in top form.

"The intensity she trains in is much different. It is just terrific to get that experience and see what a great player she is ... it is something that I want to aspire to."

Seles, 31, who is considering a return to the world circuit after a lengthy layoff with a foot injury, had plenty of praise for her young opponent.

"She reminded me of when I started playing tennis. The next few years are critical in terms of her development. She seemed to be a really hard worker, very eager and I think she is in great hands with her coach [Chris Lewis]."

Seles and Navratilova are promising there will be no holds barred in tonight's match. The pair also play a mixed doubles match with Auckland rugby stars Carlos Spencer and Xavier Rush.

With 58 Grand Slam titles, Navratilova is regarded as one of the world's most phenomenal athletes. At 48, she is still in great shape and has a world doubles ranking of 12.

"For me to play in a country I have never played is a great opportunity," Navratilova said .

"The audience is awesome when you play in a country or a city where you never played before. They get so excited to see you and they appreciate it. For us that is a breath of fresh air."

For Seles, who has won nine Grand Slam titles, the match could mark the start of yet another comeback. She spent two years out of the game after the knife attack before coming back in 1995.

She remained in the world's top 10 until 2002, when she struggled with injuries.

"It is not about whether she can compete at the level against the women, it is about whether she can compete as well as she used to," Navratilova said of Seles.

"If she can play the good tennis that she did 10 or 12 years ago ... yes there is no doubt she can win a Grand Slam."

While Navratilova has been to New Zealand before, it is Seles' first visit. She was keen to give bungy jumping a try but now isn't so sure.

"I'll probably end up not doing it," Seles conceded.

"We had dinner up the Sky Tower last night," Navratilova said "And jumping off that edge is like no way Jose."

For Erakovic, who won the junior doubles title in Melbourne on Saturday night, it is back to business today at a tournament in Wellington.

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