Catching Up With... Nicole Pratt
Published January 22, 2010 12:00
To be called a Little Aussie Battler - plucky, decent, hard working - is a big compliment Down Under, and it's a moniker that fitted the freckled, sinewy Nicole Pratt perfectly. The middle of five children of cane farmers, Pratt turned pro in 1989, finally playing her last match against Nadia Petrova in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open - her 50th Grand Slam appearance. By that time she had spent nine of the previous 10 years in the Top 100, reached a career high of No.35, won a Sony Ericsson WTA Tour singles title at Hyderabad as well as nine doubles titles. More than that, she'd been a loyal servant to Australian teams and to her peers, winning the Tour Player Service Award four times for her off-court contributions.
We caught up with Nicole during the Medibank International Sydney.
Nicole, what are you up to these days?
NP: Last July I signed on as women's national coach with Tennis Australia, based in Melbourne. Part of that is having assigned players and Casey Dellacqua is one of those. I also work with Jessica Moore, who's 19 years of age. Hopefully over time I'll have a broader scope to make an impact on the younger girls and their coaches. I certainly respect that coaching is a different job than playing. I think I offer a lot, but I'm also still learning.
Did you know when you retired that you wanted to stay in tennis?
NP: Yes, and in fact a few years earlier I had started to put a plan in place. I got involved in TV commentary while I was still playing, and I was active on the WTA Players' Council, which I hoped could evolve into a Tour Board representative role and that has happened. I also loved the idea of being a coach and giving back the experience and knowledge that I'd gained, especially to Australian players. When it came time to stop playing I'd sort of taken care of business, which made the transition easier.
What do you find gratifying about coaching?
NP: I get enjoyment out of seeing a player maximize her abilities. If they show up each and every day motivated and disciplined and wanting to have a successful career, then I get a kick out of helping them achieve that. To a degree you go through the same emotions as when you are playing. I'm a big believer in preparation, and if you can get that right, the match becomes easy. Obviously when the player walks out onto the court there isn't much more you can do, but knowing you've prepared them to be in the best possible position to execute is rewarding.
Is it true that it's harder to watch from the stands than to play a match?
NP: I think it's a bit of a myth! To a degree you are emotionally involved as a coach, and you spend a lot of time with the player, but probably that applies more to friends and family. If they're not completely involved and don't really understand, that's where the nervousness. But if you're a coach you know what your player's trying to do. Of course, on the big points when you want them to get across the line you really feel the emotions.
What did you feel the first morning you woke up after you retired from playing the Tour?
NP: A lot of different emotions. I was pretty emotional after my last match at the Australian Open two years ago, and it really wasn't until afterwards that I made the decision that I wanted to stop playing. There was sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, knowing that I'd had a pretty good career. I'd struggled with a knee injury, so I guess relief was a part of it, because I knew I wouldn't have to wake up and manage the pain. But I knew I would miss it, so there was a sense of sadness as well.
Looking back, do you feel you maximized your potential? How would you score yourself out of 10?
NP: Ten-and-a-half, probably. I tried to leave no stone unturned. I wasn't particularly talented in all the different departments, but I managed to make the most of what I had. I was quite court savvy and a connoisseur of the game, and used that to the best of my ability.
So do you consider that savviness your greatest strength as a player?
NP: Yeah, my understanding of the game and how it's played, as well as understanding myself - my strengths and weaknesses - and my opponents. I didn't really ever get ahead of myself, I was mentally and emotionally very even out on court, and I was able to think clearly.
Is there one shot that could have taken you to another level?
NP: I think I should have stayed with the two-handed backhand; I wouldn't say it's a regret, but at 21 I changed from a two-handed backhanded to a one-hander. I always had a very good slice, but being only five foot three and the way the game was going, I really struggled with high balls on that side. So I sort of wish someone back then had taught me a good two-hander, because I know that discipline wise, I would have found a way to make it work for me.
What do you consider your finest moment on a tennis court?
NP: Oh, so many. Representing Australia at the Olympic Games here in Sydney and at Athens. Playing Fed Cup for over 10 years. One significant match I remember was on Rod Laver Arena in 2004, a night match. I beat Meghann Shaughnessy, who was a top seed at that time, 6-4 in the third in front of a packed crowd. One of my idols, Andre Agassi, was next up on court. That was a really special moment.
As a girl, did you have a tennis idol?
NP: Martina Navratilova. Growing up in country Queensland, the only tennis we really got on TV was Wimbledon, and at that time Martina was winning Wimbledon after Wimbledon after Wimbledon. So she was the one I aspired to, and it was a thrill to play against her in doubles during her 'second' career. I also loved Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, and in my backyard I used to pretend to play against those players.
Who among the current crop of players do you enjoy watching?
NP: I love to watch Justine Henin. It's just a phenomenal story that she's come back. And I think Elena Dementieva is an awesome athlete. Serena and Venus in full flight, just in terms of their pure athleticism, are fantastic. Clijsters for her amazing tenacity out on court. But I respect each and every tennis player that's out there doing this job. It's a grind and if you can get to Top 100 in the world then it's a real achievement.
What do you consider the most positive development in tennis during your time on the Tour - and what don't you like so much?
NP: It's definitely evolved. The athleticism of the girls has gotten better and better, everyone's more powerful and the players are able to hit winners from anywhere on the court. But with that comes negatives. You see a lot of matches with too many unforced errors, rather than people being a little more crafty and working the point like you had to do 15 or 20 years ago. Technically I think the girls are getting closer and closer to the men's game. We'll never play like the men but I think we'll start to see more rallies back in the women's game. At least I hope so.
Obviously you're still very involved in the politics of tennis. How do you feel about the Roadmap? Is it heading in the right direction?
NP: Absolutely. It's actually been an honor to be involved in that whole process and have the Board ask me to present to the players how the new Roadmap would play out in the first year. There have been many, many areas where it's been successful but there are also some areas that need tweaking and modifying. To be involved in that has its challenges, but it's certainly rewarding to see all the pieces come together.
Do you think there's enough understanding among younger players of the need to become involved in the off court stuff?
NP: I think it's an area that could improve. The young players come in and they're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but to a degree thinking about themselves - which is only natural. It's the girls who've established themselves out on the Tour, after three or four years, who I'd like to see step up. Get to understand how things work behind the scenes, get involved in player issues and be constructive about making changes if changes are necessary.
You enjoyed a long career, but is there another era you are fascinated by and would like to have competed in?
NP: Probably the seventies, when you had Billie Jean King and Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong and then Chris Evert and Martina taking over the mantle. I think back in that day my style of play and physicality would have served me well. They mostly played on grass so there was a low strike zone ball - nothing ever got up too high.
Did you start playing with a wooden racquet?
NP: I did, it was the Ken Rosewall Special! And then when I was 12 I got a graphite racquet.
What do you do for fun outside of tennis?
NP: I've gotten into surfing… there's nothing better than jumping in the water and paddling around and catching a few waves for a couple of hours. Also, because my knee sort of gave way towards the end of my career, I enjoy cycling and mountain bike riding. I'm a really physical person so I need to keep active - otherwise I'm not really happy. Now I appreciate doing sports I wouldn't have done before because of the risk of injury.
Who would you like us to catch up with? Send your suggestions to Adam Lincoln at email@example.com.