Tennis: Kiwi star smashes top 40

Life has certainly been good for Marina Erakovic lately. Her world ranking reflects a consistent run of form in the past 12 months. She beat world No 3 Victoria Azarenka (now No 1), battled through qualifying to reach the main draw in three grand slams, made her first WTA singles final (Quebec) and the doubles semifinals at Wimbledon.

In another career highlight, Erakovic downed world No 13 Sabine Lisicki at the Rome Masters last week and will be inside the top 40 when WTA rankings are updated this week.

It is rarefied territory for a New Zealand tennis player. Brett Steven got as high as 32 in the world in the early 1990s while Belinda Cordwell was the last female to hit such heights more than 20 years ago. Since then, as the sport has become more global, no Kiwi has come close to even reaching the top 100.

She credits her Florida-based coach Christian Zahalka with changing her mental approach to the game, taking a day-to-day, game-by-game approach.

In something that sounds similar to the New Zealand cricket team's strategy at the 1992 World Cup, where they only talked about the yellow team, the blue team and the green team (instead of Australia, England and Pakistan), Erakovic prefers not to focus on rankings, whether her own or her opponents'.

"I didn't look at the rankings [last week] so I didn't know where Sabine was," says Erakovic. "It was only after the match that someone told me she was in the top 20."

It might be unusual but it is an approach that works for the 24-year-old. The nature of tennis, with so many elements, means you can play well and lose, or be a bit off but still come away with the win.

She was close to being in "the zone" against Azarenka but admits coming off the court after the Lisicki match scratching her head. "I didn't feel that great out there and conditions were tough for both of us," reflects Erakovic, "but it is about hanging tough."

So better then not to sweat on results and rather focus on performance. Technically she is feeling good, hitting the ball "a lot bigger" and has improved her game understanding and tactical approach. She also feels more comfortable within the bubble that is a tennis tournament.

It's easy to forget just how far Erakovic has come. After a run of injuries, she was ranked 324 just over 18 months ago. Before that, she endured two injury-plagued years, including time on crutches. There were tough times, like the 2010 Australian Open when she could barely keep the ball in the court. She admits now that she lost a lot confidence but always retained some belief.

"I wasn't winning matches and didn't have any confidence out on court," says Erakovic. "I didn't back myself in game situations any more. I knew I could still play but couldn't find it in a match. It was about finding the way again."

She is understandably "much happier" than she was three or four years ago and happy to talk about her ultimate goal: "Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be No 1 in the world," says Erakovic. "That is what I am still working toward - you have to aim high."

Another goal is the London Olympics and she says it will be "very disappointing" if a spot on the New Zealand team is not forthcoming. The top 56 players in the world (with a maximum of four from any single country) after the French Open will qualify for London, though the New Zealand Olympic Committee is hedging its bets over whether the New Zealand number one will be sent, given their criteria of a top 16 finish.

Erakovic, in form and on her favourite grass surface, is capable of mounting a run through the field.

- AP

- Herald on Sunday

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