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From tennis star to doctor for Erakovic

After 15 years on the world pro tennis circuit, Marina Erakovic is chasing a new dream in sports medicine and mentoring young tennis stars.

Marina Erakovic can’t run anymore.

She didn’t really like it anyway, but still, it’s a measure of the toll a 15-year career at the highest level of tennis has taken on her body.

It’s partly what’s led New Zealand’s best player in a generation towards her second act - studying health science with an eye towards becoming a sports doctor. And why she takes the opportunity to mentor young players so seriously.

Having played her last match in late 2017, before publicly announcing her retirement a year later, the end of Erakovic’s career wasn’t as abrupt as it is for some.

But while revelling in the mundane - “I got mail in the letterbox, which was super exciting!” - Erakovic concedes to feeling a bit lost in those early days and, at times, she still does. While everything has calmed down and life is less hectic, she says there are still adjustments.

“Your whole life as an athlete is about having goals, you’re working towards something and then suddenly you don’t and it all sort of stops,” the former world top 40 singles player says.

“You get into this conundrum of ‘What’s my purpose in life, what am I working towards, what shall I do now?’”

Last year she completed the Bachelor of Commerce she’d chipped away at “for 150 years”. But it was a degree, she admits, she could realistically undertake while travelling full-time on the WTA Tour, rather than the choice she would have made had she not been a professional athlete. 

“The thing that really interests me is health and medicine, particularly sports medicine and how the body works,” Erakovic says. “I applied to first-year health science at the University of Auckland and thought ‘Why not?’ I don’t want to wake up 10 years from now thinking I wish I’d given that a go.”

That interest in how the body works stems from years of learning what her own body could do on the tennis court - and eventually, what it couldn’t.

Marina Erakovic gets treatment for a neck injury between sets at the 2017 Bank of West Classic, before retiring in the first round. Photo: Getty Images. 

Erakovic recalls near constant pain in the last couple of years of her career.

“I’d go to bed and my legs would go numb because the nerves in my back were getting so much abuse,” she says.

While she can’t do the things she used to do (like running) and needs to maintain strong core fitness to help her back, Erakovic stays active and, most importantly, has no more pain.

It seems a lot to have put oneself through by the age of 32, and there is hesitation when asked if she would do it all again.

“Part of me says yes, part of me says no. I’m the person I am because of the things I’ve done in the sport. I’ve had a great career and achieved so many things some people only dream of, so I’m very fortunate,” the two-time Olympian says.

“But the ‘no’ part says it was such a gruelling life and a tough road that I wouldn’t jump up and recommend that to a young person, because you really have to be a specific type to handle all that.”

It’s a refreshingly honest picture of life as a pro tennis player.

While Erakovic has no desire to go into coaching or work full-time in the sport, she’s hopeful her experiences can help a new crop of players. That’s the reason why she took on the Fed Cup captaincy for New Zealand in February. 

“As a youngster, I wish I had someone who was on the tour before me that I could talk to and seek advice from that I could related to,” she says. “I’ve always said I’d love to mentor anyone getting on to WTA level or grinding out on the ITF circuit, and I am very open to still doing that.”

The Fed Cup tie, which New Zealand won to earn promotion to Asia-Oceania Group One, featured a group of players who are each at critical junctures in their careers.

“There’s a bunch of girls who are on that borderline of trying to make it, get those ranking points and it’s really hard. I hope I helped them in any way possible,” Erakovic says

Like everyone, Erakovic is adjusting to our new normal; it’s just coming at a time in her life when many things are new anyway.

University lectures have gone online, and she says there is some uncertainty just how this tertiary year will play out and what impact that has on her study plans.

However Covid-19 hasn’t given her any desire to change from her planned sports medicine to epidemiology. She quips: “Everyone thinks they’re an epidemiologist at the moment.”

But full-time study has given Erakovic different targets and renewed the sense of purpose that came with being a tennis pro.

“I like having goals, working hard for me is great,” she says. “I know I need to do A, B, C, D to get through this and I have a plan for this year which makes me a calm person.”

Erakovic believes throwing herself into study has helped negate that feeling of being a bit lost after sport. She talked to a few fellow Kiwi athletes about their retirement paths and one said it took 10 years to figure out. 

However the former tennis star who may just one day become Dr Erakovic considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to try a few thing and find what fits. “Sometimes crossing off things you don’t like, gets you closer to the things you do.”

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