Nicole Pratt joins Casey Dellacqua, hopes to push her closer to the top
By Courtney Walsh
December 13, 2008
IT takes a talent of significance to impress Nicole Pratt, but the hardened veteran readily admits to being amazed by an exchange she saw at Wimbledon this year.
The Queenslander, who regularly ceded power and height to more gifted opponents but never a match until the handshake, watched with eyebrows raised as a pair of lefties slugged the ball with increasing intent in a mixed doubles match.
Thwack went Fernando Verdasco, the recent hero in Spain's Davis Cup win, in shelving the niceties which are the norm of mixed doubles at club level in a bid to boss the Australian upstart.
Thwaaack. Back the ball came, harder than before, with the once shy Casey Dellacqua refusing to let the world's 16th-ranked man intimidate her.
"It was live competition and they ended up in this cross-court rally ... and they literally were both hitting balls as hard as they could," Pratt said.
"In the beginning, Fernando was just feeling the ball around, but on this particular point he thought, 'Right, I'll show her', and he really lifted his intensity and was hitting it as hard as he could and Casey was just absorbing it and ended up winning the point.
"It was an indication to me that if Casey could do that against a guy of that calibre, she could do well against anyone."
The mixed exchange was in stark contrast to a singles match a year earlier at the All England Club when Pratt was able to dismantle Dellacqua, with the overawed West Australian still lacking the confidence that her game belonged at the top level.
"I think overall the big difference to me was her maturity, her knowledge of how to handle certain situations," Pratt said.
"I think her entire game is better now. She has always been solid on the backhand but when I played her I exposed her forehand. Those weaknesses in her game are not there anymore."
That, in a large way, is due to Pratt, with much changing since that Wimbledon encounter 17 months ago.
Dellacqua, who at 53 is ranked one spot behind Australia's leading woman Samantha Stosur, is increasingly sure she can beat anyone following a breakout year that began at the Australian Open, where she defeated former world No1 Amelie Mauresmo and seasoned pro Patty Schnyder en route to the fourth round.
Solid results followed at Indian Wells, one of the largest tournaments outside the Slams, and at the French Open and Wimbledon, while she also reached the doubles final at Roland Garros with Francesca Schiavone despite beginning the event the 171st-ranked doubles player.
As a result Dellacqua, who was buying clothes from Target during her Australian Open run, ended the year with sponsorships from Head and Nike and earned $680,600 to push her career earnings to almost $1.15million.
It was at the Australian Open, the scene of Dellacqua's coming of age, that Pratt ended her 20-year career but the pair, contrasting players on court and different personalities off it, have joined in a player-coach relationship both believe will push the left-hander closer to the top.
"I was probably training at a lower intensity, not as good as I could have before I started with Nicole," Dellacqua said.
"I have always been quite relaxed on the court, whether practising or playing, where as she was more intense ... but those are things I am learning from Nicole which are really important."
Pratt admits the relationship, which began in April, is still in its infancy but is obviously pleased with what she has seen to date. Considered a smart tactician during her own career, Pratt is working on developing that side of Dellacqua's game.
"We have not had any blow-ups yet but I think we are still getting to know each other.
"I think I understand her pretty well, having an idea of what is going on emotionally with Casey and realising how important it is that she enjoy what she is doing," Pratt said.
"Casey has always had weapons and can finish a point but it was sometimes having to stay in the point and work out the point to give her the chance to hit her favourite shot that was a problem, but she has done a great job in the six months at doing that.
"It is not going to be an easy year, next year, given the points that she has to defend and we will continue to refine that part of her game but she is doing well."
The Perth native, a prolific winner on the secondary tour before this year's graduation, is certain the added smarts will help her reach the latter stages of tournaments on a more consistent basis.
"I feel like I can walk out on court now and have a set structure on how I can play where as in the past, I have played a lot of matches where I have won and not realised how I was able to do it," Dellacqua said.
"It is nice to go out there now and figure out a match, work out an opponent and walk off knowing how it happened."
Also pleasing Dellacqua as she heads towards next month's Hopman Cup, where she will make her Australia debut in her home town and pair with Lleyton Hewitt, is the absence of the shoulder pain that hindered her from Wimbledon onwards.
That injury occurred not from trying to out-hit Verdasco, rather from wear and tear. Dellacqua returned to Australia shortly after the US Open in September for extended physiotherapy in Canberra to rectify the problem and is confident it is behind her.
"I had a partial tear in one of my tendons," she said.
"It was one of those things where it was a matter of rest and relaxation, physio and working to get the mechanics of it right for the longevity of my career so I can play for as long as I like."
Dellacqua, who returned to the court in Melbourne last week, will continue her preparations at the home of the Australian Open over Christmas.
According to Pratt, this will include extensive matchplay against Stosur, rising star Jessica Moore and former world No.4 Jelena Dokic, who will continue her comeback at the Australian Open wild-card playoffs next week.