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Mattographer
Dec 26th, 2002, 01:40 AM
You are a typical 17-year-old country girl, going to school, hanging with your mates and playing a bit of sport when one day you wake up and discover you're a professional tennis player. In a game where adolescence is all, you'd think this was the stuff of Wizard of Oz-style fantasy, but the way Australian No. 1, Nicole Pratt, tells it, that's exactly what happened to her.

She readily admits that tennis was all "fun and games" until she was 16. She didn't even consider going pro until she was 17. "I grew up in the country and nobody takes sport too seriously there and that was my attitude to it too," says Pratt. "I guess because you're so out of touch with pro sport, and only see it on TV you probably don't believe that you can actually get there yourself."

As a result, Pratt says that during most of her teens she thought she would have an academic career, not a sporting career. She spent only two hours a week on the tennis court, went on a few domestic tennis trips, played Nationals a few times but it was enough to keep her in the top five or six ranked juniors in her age group. And it was enough to get her name noticed by the AIS which is how she came to find herself on their doorstep as a 16-year-old.

"I was fortunate because they recognised that if I played more and was exposed to better coaching then I would certainly improve dramatically." Pratt credits former AIS coach, Ray Ruffles for much of the success she's enjoyed in the game saying she's thanked him many times for the opportunities he provided her. "When he was head coach he'd always choose a country kid over a city kid if there was ever a debate over who to choose because he understood it (the country) was a difficult environment to make it from.

With her background, it's no surprise that the bush-tennis cause is one of Pratt's hobbyhorses. She welcomes Tennis Australia's Tennis Over Australia scheme, which brings the game to regional and outback areas, but believes more needs to be done to prevent promising country players from remaining hidden in the sticks.

"Between the ages of 12 and 16 if you don't get picked up then you start to have other activities and stuff that you get involved in. And, with the tennis environment the way it is, if you're not good when you're young, (people think) you're not going to be good, and that's just not the case.

Ever since the right-hander from Mackay, Queensland, made the decision to play tennis full-time, she's been giving late-starters a good name. She's won five ITF singles titles and three WTA doubles titles during her career and the 29-year-old enjoyed the best form of her career in 2002.

She kicked off the year strongly on home soil reaching the semi-final in Hobart and the third-round of the Australian Open. Her excellent Grand Slam form continued in May when she reached the second-round of the French Open and the British grass court season also began promisingly when she reached the semi-finals in Birmingham, earning herself her first ever Grand Slam seeding (No. 31) at Wimbledon.

The All England Club proved something of a disappointment when she was upset in the first-round by Laura Granville but Pratt was quick to pick herself up, reaching the US Open doubles semi-finals with Nadia Petrova and the singles quarter-finals in Tokyo.

Who knows what she could have achieved had she taken the game more seriously, younger? "If I had it over again, if someone grabbed me at a young age, I would have been a better player younger," she says. "Yeah, I definitely would have preferred that, but it also proves that it's never too late to keep improving."