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Getting To Know... Julia Vakulenko

Her family moved from Ukraine to Barcelona to pursue Julia's dream.

Published June 09, 2003 12:00

Getting To Know... Julia Vakulenko
Julia Vakulenko

PARIS, France - Turning 20 years old next month, Julia Vakulenko is not exactly what you would call one of tennis's youngest hot prospects, but she's certainly made enough steady progress in the first half of 2003 to turn lots of heads. Having been ranked outside the Top 200 last November, the Ukrainian is now just one spot shy of the Top 100, in part due to her impressive third round finish as a qualifier at Roland Garros.

Born in Yalta in the Ukraine on July 10, 1983, Julia moved to Yugoslavia with her mother when she was eight years old, a year after she started playing tennis. While her tennis improved as she played junior tournaments in Yugoslavia, the political unrest in the region prevented her from traveling overseas to compete with the world's best players in her age group. At the age of 14, the Vakulenkos moved to Barcelona, where she was encouraged to try her luck at the Sergi Bruguera Tennis Academy. It was at the Academy that Julia met Fernando Luna, who would be her coach up until the end of 2002.

Vakulenko, who is now fluent in Spanish and English as well as her native Ukrainian, still resides in Barcelona. She won the second pro tournament she ever contested, an ITF Women's Circuit event in Mallorca, Spain in 1998. It was another four years before she won her next ITF titles, winning consecutive events at the end of 2002 at Deauville, France and Boynton Beach, Florida.

These results propelled Julia back into the Top 200 and provided the platform for her consistent start to this season.

After qualifying for the Roland Garros main draw - along the way defeating Aniko Kapros, who upset 2003 champion Justine Henin-Hardenne in the first round last year - Julia beat experienced claycourters Cristina Torrens Valero and Francesca Schiavone, a Paris quarterfinalist two years ago. Her gallant run came to an end on Court Suzanne Lenglen against 2001 champion Jennifer Capriati, but her ranking rose from No.134 to No.101, eclipsing her previous best position of No.113 from May 2002.

How did you first start playing tennis?
JV: My mother introduced me to tennis when I was about seven years old. At that stage I was interested in a lot of different sports, like ice-skating and basketball, but then I started doing well with tennis, so that was the sport I decided to spend more time on.

At 1.85 metres, you're obviously taller than many of the players on Tour. Growing up, was your height a problem for you, being that much taller than your friends and classmates?
JV: I think it was a little bit - there was some teasing from the kids, but the thing I remember the most was how it affected my tennis. Every month I would be growing quite a bit, and I had to change the way that I played, with all the different angles. But of course, now that I've stopped growing, having this height is an advantage for me.

What goals have you set yourself for your tennis career?
JV: I think for me at the moment it's to learn to enjoy playing tennis more, not to get nervous during my matches. But of course, later one, I would love to win a WTA title, and keep winning them!

Who were your idols growing up?
JV: My number one idol was Steffi Graf. I thought she was very professional on and off the court. I met her a couple of times and she was always very nice to me. Growing up I also liked Andre Agassi.

What things do you like to do during your time off from tennis?
JV: I like to spend time with my family, as I don't get to have much time with them because I'm away from home so much. I also like to read a lot, and also go to the beach. I like to spend time outdoors.

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