Born to Serve
Ranked at number eight in the world, Alicia Molik is the golden girl of Australian tennis. Now, on the eve of Wimbledon, Michael Sheather talks to her about sport, shopping and why she's still single.
Just 18 months ago, Alicia Molik might have passed unnoticed in the Australian Open crowds. At the time, she was the 33rd best women's tennis player in the world. Only diehard fans – and a handful of astute tennis judges – even knew who she was.
This year was different. This year, heads turned as she walked by, people reached out and shouted support and encouragement. This year, everybody knew who Alicia Molik was. This year, Alicia Molik – today, ranked eighth in the world and the first Australian woman to crack tennis' coveted top 10 in 20 years – is a bright star.
Alicia Molik is, in many ways, the woman for whom Australian tennis has waited since the heady days when Evonne Goolagong strode the centre court at Wimbledon and Wendy Turnbull went stroke for stroke with the world's best. While a major singles title has so far eluded Alicia – she has played in three Grand Slam doubles finals, winning the 2005 Australian Open – that might all change this month as she sets out to bring home the Wimbledon crown.
And many believe the 24-year-old Alicia is more than capable of doing so. She's young. She's talented. And she has power to burn – Martina Navratilova says she has the most devastating second service in women's tennis. Already, Alicia has beaten the likes of Grand Slam winners Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Anastasia Myskina, whom she defeated in Athens to win Olympic bronze. And, if that's not enough, some commentators believe Alicia has a better game than the great Margaret Court, who swept all before her during the '60s and early '70s, and, with 24 major singles victories, still holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles.
Perhaps more importantly, in this age of bland automatons and over-inflated egos, Alicia Molik is refreshingly grounded, friendly and mature. She's blessed with an endearing loyalty that burns as fiercely as her will to win. Match those qualities with her distinctive blonde ponytail and a smile that tends to make marketers weak a the knees, and you've got something rare in Australian tennis – a winner that people can feel good about.
Yet, for all her success – Alicia has won around $2.1 million in prize money, but genuinely doesn't know what she's worth – this girl from suburban Adelaide, seems unchanged. "I am still the same", she says. "I understand things are going to change, but I like Alicia Molik just the way she is and I'm not going to change, not ever."
Indeed, there is a great deal to like about Alicia. She is open, warm and happy to talk about her "overnight" success, her ambitions, her childhood, her love of shopping and the surprising fact that this vital young woman doesn't have a man in her life.
Her drive to the top rankings came in a sudden flurry halfway through last year. Alicia, who began her senior professional career in 1998 at age 17, has long been recognised as one of the most promising players that this country has ever produced. When she turned pro, she was already ranked in the world's top 100. Yet, while some players hit their stride early, others take time to develop. Alicia's "overnight" success and the maturity with which she handles it has been a lifetime in the making.
Alicia Molik was born in Adelaide in 1981, the second child of Andrew, a Polish-born architect, and Teresa, who both still live in her hometown. They don't travel the world to see their daughter play, but annually drive from Adelaide to see her at the Australian Open in Melbourne. She has a brother, Richard, three years her senior, an IT consultant and a keen amateur tennis player. In fact, in a way, Richard was responsible for his sister's tennis start.
"I first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of five or six, by mistake," Alicia explains. "My parents enrolled Richard in a holiday clinic. I would go along. And I guess Mum and Dad could see I loved it and wanted to be out there every minute I could, hitting a tennis ball. It wasn't long before they enrolled me, too.
"I was always very sporty. I was never a girl to play with dolls for hours. I would rather be out, riding my bike. I grew up with a street full of boys, so we were always playing football or cricket. It was very competitive.
"It was just the most normal thing for me that I loved sport. So, naturally, I wanted to tag along and play tennis as well. I used to beg my parents to take me out on weekends and I used to hit with my brother sometimes. I just loved it."
She also loved watching then world number one Steffi Graf. "Steffi was beating anyone and everyone," says Alicia. "She was fantastic. I used to absolutely love the clothes she wore. I can still reel off some of the outfits. I'd watch a tournament and beg Mum to buy me whichever outfit she had worn. I also loved her off-forehand."
When Alicia was nine, she won the first tournament she entered and was marked as a girl with natural ability. Yet far from being the stereotypical child prodigy, prodded by ambitious parents, Alicia was always encouraged to make her own decisions.
"My parents loved the fact that Richard and I both played sport and believed it was an important part of our lives," says Alicia. "But nothing was ever forced on us. Tennis was the major focus of my life because I wanted it to be. I was given the chance to make up my own mind and I think that's one reason why I'm still playing tennis. I have great parents. I think that when I have kids I will rear them exactly as I was brought up. They are not crazy tennis parents. They have always let us develop and mature and learn from our mistakes.
"It is important that every individual is allowed to reach his or her potential. That's definitely helped me get to where I am now – not just in making decisions, but having the enthusiasm, the drive and the discipline."
Early on, Alicia encountered another young player with great potential, Lleyton Hewitt. She joined the now-famous Seaside Tennis Club in Adelaide's western suburbs. "We grew up together from about the age of seven or eight", she recalls. "Lleyton played in my brother's team. It is ironic that we have both come from the same little club in Adelaide. I used to play doubles with his sister, Jaslyn.
"I have never met anyone more competitive than Lleyton, that hunger, that drive. He was always like that as a kid, he was always beating up on guys twice his age and he's still the same."
Alicia's international career really began to heat up after her bronze medal winning performance at the Athens Olympics, last August. She knew she had potential, but beating Anastasia Myskina, 2004 French Open champion, to stand on the winner's dais beside Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo gave her the confidence to explode as a major force.
"That was an incredible experience," she recalls. "I think that gave me a boost. It certainly had me pumped for the next tournament and when I won that, I just seemed to be on a roll. I just kept winning." Indeed, she won 41 of 48 matches and catapulted into the top 10 just in time for the Australian Open in January.
With success came money. Last year, she won more than $850,000. This year, it's $550,000 so far. Yet Alicia says she hasn't a clue how much she has.
"That's not what I'm about," she says. "Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a decent pay cheque, but it's not why I play tennis. I play because I'm good at it and I can win."
Nor is this star prone to conspicuous displays of consumption. A few years ago, she bought a house in Melbourne, where she now lives. "It's a normal, comfortable home," she says. "I have a couple of rose bushes and that's about it. When I bought it a few years ago, I did the bathroom and the kitchen, just to make it more suited to me, but I didn't change the floor plan.
"The only thing I splurged on was a very good Italian coffee machine, because I love my coffee. But there are no Ferraris or boats or anything stupid like that."
That's not to say she doesn't appreciate the good things in life. She has a penchant for stylish shoes and designer jeans – she bought seven pairs during a recent trip to Europe – and whatever city she happens to be in, she always manages to spend a day or two searching for the best shops.
"If I'm spending money, it's normally on clothes", she admits. "I love shopping in Europe and I go with my girlfriends to Soho in London and we source all the cool places and cafes. In every city, I make sure I visit the shops. I had a stop put on my credit card when I was in Antwerp recently, because I'd spent too much."
Alicia says her hectic, nomadic lifestyle means opportunities for romance are few and far between. "How can you have a relationship when you live out of a suitcase for seven or eight months a year? So, no, I don't have anyone in my life right now. That's not to say I wouldn't like to meet someone. I would. But he'd have to be a pretty understanding person.
"I'm the kind of girl who always wants to give 100 per cent to what she's doing. If I was in a relationship, I don't think I'd be able to do that and that wouldn't be fair. I know I have probably only until I'm 30 to make the most of my career and, for the moment, I have to concentrate on that.
"You close yourself off to a lot of things. It's like you can see an end before there is a start. Perhaps I just haven't met the right person, but I don't feel my life is really conducive to it right now.
"I haven't been out on a date forever. I think I am going to go up to a fella and ask him out. Look, I'm sure it will happen one day. I am not fussed. I know at some stage I will meet someone."
Alicia still has a burning ambition to climb the rankings, but the phrase Number One is not something you'll hear her use. Not yet, anyway. She doesn't need to put herself under that kind of pressure. Even so, she's convinced she can do better than her current ranking.
"My life is a bit like a dream at the moment," she says. "I always dreamed when I was a kid that I would be a top 10 player. Here I am at number eight. But something inside me says I can do better than that. I'm sure I can. Number eight is good, but I want to be better. There is no question, absolutely no question."