Join Date: Sep 2002
HARKLEROAD UNFAZED BY QUALIFYING PROCESS
HARKLEROAD UNFAZED BY QUALIFYING PROCESS
Thursday, 9 January, 2003
by Barry Levinson
On the tennis court she looks as comfortable and mature as any other top tennis name, hitting powerful groundstroke after groundstroke during qualifying for the Australian Open 2003.
Young American up-and-comer Ashley Harkleroad has already developed quite a following in her homeland, largely due to the 17-year-old's on-court potential, but also somewhat due to her glamorous appearance and body-hugging outfits, which have earned her the tag of potential rival to Anna Kournikova in the beauty stakes.
As a possible star of the future, Harkleroad, the No.1 seed in the women's qualifying tournament, is certainly one to watch over the next few days at Melbourne Park.
In the first-round on Thursday, she comfortably accounted for Anousjka Van Exel of the Netherlands 6-4, 6-1, despite a small hiccup after serving for the first set at 5-2, 40-15. She was broken and had her momentum halted by the Dutchwoman for a short period.
Off the tennis court and out of her on-court gear, Harkleroad looks more the youthful 17-year-old one would normally expect.
She was naturally happy to be through to the second-round of qualifying, but still slightly frustrated that, with her 2002 season-end singles ranking of 115, she narrowly missed direct entry into a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.
"I'll be in the main draw of all the other ones," Harkleroad quipped. "It's okay. This will see how much of a fighter I am, if I can try and get through this."
As the top-ranked player in the women's qualifying, Harkleroad is naturally expected to win one of the 12 main-draw spots on offer, but she said she doesn't feel any extra pressure associated with her seeding.
"Everybody that's here (in qualifying) is a good tennis player and I just go and try and play my best every day. There's no added pressure or anything. I know what I can do and I have faith."
But the youngster, who was born in Roseville, Georgia, but now resides in Wesley Chapel, Florida, admitted that she has succumbed to the pressure of expectation before - at last year's US Open.
"I think in the (US) Open it was a little bit more nerve-wracking for me because it's where I'm from and everybody knows who I am and always wants to come and watch and expecting so much, because I won a warm-up tournament before the Open," she recalled.
"I was a little bit nervous last year and I didn't play my best, but that's experience and when you have something like that happen, you just try and take something away from it and I think I have grown up more and matured in those ways."
Her national championship is the only Grand Slam tournament in which Harkleroad has featured in the main draw, having been awarded wildcards in 2001, as well as last year. Both times she did not reach the second-round, but Harkleroad relishes all of her experiences in her fledgling career, which include a junior finals appearance at the 2002 French Open and semi-final berths at both Roland Garros and Melbourne Park in 2001.
But she is now also relishing a chance to hit the courts away from the spotlight, where she is just another young prospect, battling her way through qualifying.
"There's not a whole lot of people that know me, but through the tournament they get to know me more and more," she said.
"It's better like that, because you don't feel like you have to do something big and I think that's how I felt at the Open. But that's just experience, I mean I was only 17!"
She still is 17, not turning 18 until May 2, meaning Harkleroad is restricted by WTA Tour rules in the number of tournaments she is allowed to play until her next birthday.
A 17-year-old is not allowed to play in more than 13 regular senior tournaments in a calendar year. However, the season-ending championships, Fed Cup commitments and Grand Slams, where a player's ranking is good enough to earn direct entry into the tournament, are not included in this figure.
For the most part, Harkleroad has felt as though she is ready to play on the senior tour full-time for a while, but she accepts that the WTA's rules are in place for her own well-being.
"I don't really like it (the restrictions), because I like to be away and I like to travel," she said. "But I can see sometimes when I've been on the road for a month and a half, I can get kind of tired and anal. They're doing it for the best for us, so you just have to trust them."
Unlike many young players on the tour, Harkleroad does not travel with family, or even a large entourage. Rather, she is joined in Australia by regular coach Jose Luis Clerc and travelling coach Rodrigo Cerdera.
"I'm very blessed with the support group that I have. My parents are at home and they come every now and then, but right now I like to go by myself a little bit."
She may only have two regular spectators at her matches at Melbourne Park at the moment, but if Harkleroad can progress through to the main draw, that figure could well increase dramatically.