The Tennis Week Interview: Ashley Harkleroad
The Tennis Week Interview: Ashley Harkleroad
By Brad Falkner
Go ahead and call Ashley Harkleroad the next Anna Kournikova, she has no problem with that label. In fact, the 17-year-old Harkleroad takes it as a compliment. After last week's performance at the Family Circle Cup, Kournikova could also find the comparison complimentary.
While Kournikova hobbled out of the Charleston tournament with another first-round setback, Harkleroad produced the best tennis of her professional career in scoring decisive victories over three seeded players in succession — Elena Bovina, Meghann Shaughnessy and Daniela Hantuchova — to reach her first Tier I semifinal.
In the semis, the wild card's inspired tournament run came to a close as she lost a hard-fought match to eventual-champion Justine Henin-Hardenne.
Harkleroad credits her new coach, former ATP pro Jay Berger, for helping her achieve her recent success. Best known to tennis fans for his abbreviated surface motion that saw him start his serve with his racquet in the back-scratch position, Berger is a member of the USTA junior tennis high performance staff.
A three-time ATP tournament champion, Berger took over as Harkleroad's coach with no preconceived opinions of her game — that's because he had never seen her play when the pair first met six weeks ago.
"I knew nothing about her six weeks ago, I had never even seen her play before we started working together," Berger said.
In the short span of time they've spent together, Berger has been impressed with Harkleroad's astute shot selection and ability to construct points.
"When I watch her playing out points in practice nine out of ten times I think to myself, 'That's exactly how I would have play that ball.' " Berger said. "She has amazing court sense."
Citing Harkleroad's balanced strokes as her greatest weapons, Berger believes Harkleroad's desire, concentration and competitiveness may be her greatest assets.
"Ashley is the type of player who performs better in matches than in practice," said Berger, who has been working with Harkleroad to utilize her quickness and refine her transition and net game.
Harkleroad fans need not fear that Berger is going to change her serve and model it after his own distinctive delivery. He assured me that he is not teaching Ashley his serve — which, while notorious for being unorthodox served Berger quite well throughout his pro career. Oh yes, and he still does play with his old, trusty Prince pro.
Asked to assess Harkleroad's potential, ESPN analyst and International Tennis Hall of Fame member Pam Shiver believes that Harkleroad's work ethic and backhand will make her a competitive pro over the course of her career.
"I feel that she is a hard worker whose two handed backhand is right up there with the best," Shriver said. "I'm not so sure that she is a phenom like Hingis or either of the Williams sisters."
Due to the WTA age eligibility rule, Harkleroad, who celebrates her 18th birthday on May 2nd, will not be allowed to compete until next moth's German Open in Berlin, an event that she is contemplating entering.
Until then Harkleroad will continue to work on improving her game and said she spends most of her time off court hanging out with her family and friends.
Tennis Week: Who is your coach these days?
Ashley Harkleroad: I am working with the USTA and Jay Berger, he's really been helping me out and he's a great, great coach, and such a great guy.
TW: I could not help but notice that you don't have his serve.
AH: (Laughing) I don't know what that looks like? He put it like this (Harkleroad puts her arm into the back scratch position in an attempt to imitate the famed Berger serve).
TW: Back in the day he played with a Prince Pro.
AH: He still does. He's very fun for me. He is still such a great hitter. We have a good time on the court. He handles me very well. I like him a lot.
TW: What was your great memory from your junior career?
AH: Winning the Easter Bowl twice. All the good players went there when I played it. I was 14 when I won the 18s I guess that was the last junior tournament that I played because then I went pro.
TW: How do feel about the Anna Kournikova comparisons?
AH: I just take it as a compliment. You know, I've been practicing with her a lot in Miami. She's a very sweet girl, and we get along really well. And she's a very cool girl. So I just take it as a compliment.
TW: Do people really call you Pebbles? (Harkleroad grew up in Flintstone, Georgia)
AH: It's not like a lot of people call me that, it's just when I am in the south.
TW: Would you like for the media to start calling you Pebbles?
AH: (Laughing) You guys can just call me Ashley, if you want.