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Catching Up With... Dianne Balestrat

Not for nothing is Dianne Balestrat considered the best lefthanded woman tennis player Australia has produced.

Published February 25, 2011 03:16

Catching Up With... Dianne Balestrat
Dianne Fromholtz Balestrat

MELBOURNE, Australia - With four year-end Top 10 finishes in the late '70s and a career-high ranking of No.4, Aussie lefthander Dianne Balestrat (née Fromholtz) made her mark in an era not short on dazzle. Not only did she score multiple wins over Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, she compiled an 8-7 lifetime record against Billie Jean King. The winner of some 30 pro singles titles, Balestrat was runner-up at the Australian Open in 1977 (she won the doubles that year with Helen Gourlay) and was a semifinalist twice at Roland Garros and once at the US Open. She also reached the quarters at Wimbledon on two occasions. Two decades into retirement, her tally of 24 Fed Cup singles victories remains the national high water mark - besting the likes of Court, Goolagong Cawley, Melville Reid and Turnbull.

We caught up with Dianne after the recent WTA Alumnae & Friends Asia-Pacific Reunion in Melbourne, where she now lives.

What was it like to see your fellow players at the reunion?
DB: Oh, I really enjoyed it. It's been many years since I saw most of the people who were there. It's a sad feeling that you don't see them anymore, really. Psychologically I think that affects you... I think you've got to be able to have talks with the people you played with, see how they are going, swap ideas about how you are feeling about things. I miss that camaraderie and sense that somebody else understands the life that you led.

What were your strengths as a player?
DB: I had a very good topspin backhand and a very good slice serve, helped by the fact I am a lefty.

Favorite surface?
DB: I liked clay and I liked grass. I was a fairly good all-round player - I had good groundstrokes and I was able to come in, so I could play well on most surfaces.

Did you have a tennis idol when you were growing up?
DB: Yes, my idol was Rod Laver, because he was left-handed like me. I always thought he played fantastic tennis.

Who was your toughest opponent?
DB: There were two, actually: Chris and Martina! They were very professional and each time they played you they weren't going to give you a point. Martina was particularly aggressive because she had that net game, and her movement was incredibly fast.

Did you feel like you had a better shot against one of them?
DB: Well, I played them quite a lot of times... I beat Chris three times but I also lost to her about 17 times! Same with Martina... I beat her four times but lost to her quite a few times!

What do you consider to be the best match you ever played?
DB: Actually it was a match in Spain against America in Fed Cup, on clay. I played Chris and we played four hours and 20 minutes for three sets. I really, really wanted to beat her then... I didn't, but I think it was the best I ever played.

Is there a win you particularly treasure?
DB: Yes, at Boston in 1976 I played Chris in the first round. I lost the first set 62, so I decided I was going to be aggressive and I won that match. It was my first big win.

Was it a difficult decision to retire?
DB: Well, I retired when I was 36, having started when I was about 16 and reached the top when I was only fairly young. So my career was from about 1972 to 1990, with a break in the early eighties that really made me realize I wanted to keep playing. People would say, well, why don't you retire? But I was enjoying the tour... I was playing well and ranked in the Top 20 still at 36. I got to see and be a part of a lot of changes over that time, from the early days of real prize money to the era of lots of young, attractive, marketable players that we still have today.

Any regrets?
DB: Not winning a Grand Slam singles event. That's been a bit of a thorn in my side. I got to the final at the Australian Open. But in those days there wasn't the same emphasis on the Slams... no-one was saying, concentrate on the majors because that's what people will care about in the future. Now it's unthinkable that top players weren't playing the French Open or Australian Open. When people look back at careers, the majors are what's left. Whatever ranking you got to doesn't seem to count. But a lot of those tournaments in the '70s were groundbreaking, the mere fact that there was decent prize money was groundbreaking. It's a real shame that that era in a way has been lost.

Would you have liked to have played in another era?
DB: I think I'd have liked to have played now, because the prize money's so good! It's really amazing, so much better. In our day we had to do a lot of appearances, cocktail parties every week. Obviously today's players still have to do these things, but they've got it pretty good now.

Who do you like to watch play?
DB: I like Kim Clijsters - I think she hits the ball very cleanly and she's aggressive. And I like to watch the Williams sisters... they're very colorful characters, emotional.

If you could play one of today's players, on a level playing field, who would you like to take on?
DB: I think Kim would be too tough! I think if I got into a match with anyone I'd win two games and it would be all downhill from there!

Your daughter, Miel, is now 18. Apart from caring for your family, what else keeps you busy?
DB: I coach. I train Miel, who has started playing tournaments and wants to get on the tour eventually. Actually we coach together in the afternoons. Mostly little children, many of them Sudanese or Indian. They're really lovely kids. But, I would like to be more involved at an elite level. I think I have a lot to offer tactically and training-wise and it makes me sad I am not really sharing that.

What advice would you give to players about life after tennis?
DB: You've been very competitive, so you've got to find a way of putting that competitiveness somewhere else or calming it down, because that can be very unsettling. You think after your career you can do anything, and it just doesn't happen like that. But that competitiveness is in your nature and it needs to be directed somewhere, safely.

What do you like to do to relax?
DB: I like to get massages!

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