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Where is she now? Belinda Cordwell

Belinda Cordwell remains New Zealand's highest-ranked singles tennis player, having climbed to No.17 in the world. But today you'll find her chasing sheep rather than a fuzzy green ball. 

You may remember Belinda Cordwell came within two victories of being New Zealand’s only woman Grand Slam tennis champion.

But you might be unaware she’s also the highest-ranked player New Zealand has produced, man or woman. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, she was a fully-fledged touring professional, won a singles title and two doubles crowns.

You certainly wouldn't think it now if you met her on the rural lifestyle property outside Greytown in the Wairarapa, mucking in among the cows, pigs and dogs.

There’s no big emphasis on her past sporting life and you sense Cordwell likes it that way.

As she puts it: "It doesn’t have any impact on my life. It’s something I did, but there’s very little now to show that’s what I did then."

And if that sounds like it comes with a tinge of regret, forget it.

Injuries to her back, then an Achilles problem, hurried her to a decision that it was time to walk away. She was 26, when she should have been in her prime. She had plenty more years left in her and did have targets, such as cracking the world top 10. But that’s life.

"There are absolutely no regrets," she says. "I’ve got this attitude that I had been dealt a hand of cards and played them to the best of my ability. I gave it everything and that’s really all you can do."

Cordwell, 54, and husband, Collier Isaacs, have three children - Rosie, Henry and Will. All three played tennis and for a time Cordwell traipsed around the country to age-group tournaments. A bit of memory lane about that too.

Belinda Cordwell at home on her farm in Greytown, Wairarapa. Photo: Stuff. 

She grew up in Karori in Wellington, and as luck would have it there was a tennis court out the back which the local kids used for all sorts of sporting activities.

Her father got hold of a few racquets and sawed down the handle of one for his very small daughter.

At Erskine College she played netball and basketball ("I loved it" with emphasis on the middle word), as well as tennis. But inevitably it got to the point, as so many students would recognise, where she had to choose: tennis or basketball.

She made her choice based on a preference for individual rather than the team sport.

Her career path opened up when she won the national U17 title. Part of the prize was a flight to Whangarei for the New Zealand senior nationals.

"I flew up with the idea of giving it a go and seeing how I fared against adults, and I won it. It was a bit of a surprise and maybe at that point I thought potentially I had a future in the game," she says.

Cordwell's parents insisted she could not pursue her ambition until she had gained University Entrance. She duly completed that, and an invitation to Junior Wimbledon arrived, so she promptly left school after one term of what would have been her final year.

In her second year, Tennis New Zealand sent a group of players to live, train and play in the United States. Cordwell vividly remembers the experience. Tough and single-minded teenage Americans everywhere, all armed with double-fisted backhands, which were new to the young New Zealanders.

"It was really freaky. I remember just player after player, and how big the gap was between what they were doing and what we were doing.," she says.

Money was tight and Cordwell remembers once driving 20 hours straight to get to the next tournament. Some would call that character building; others as just a pain in the backswing.

"We did it pretty tough, but it was the way it had to be if you wanted to give it a nudge."

Belinda Cordwell came close to taking a set off Martina Navratilova at the 1985 NSW Open. Photo: Getty Images. 

Having turned pro in 1985, Cordwell had good and bad days for several years, but her confidence was high around 1989, the year she leapt to No.17 in the singles charts.

The likes of Navratilova, Evert, Shriver and Sabatini were on the other side of the court, along with a pile of young wannabes.

Cordwell tells of being in the food hall at Boca Raton in Florida when a 14-year-old called Jennifer Capriati, preparing for her first round game at her first tournament, walked in.

"Everybody clapped, and I remember thinking 'Here’s this 14-year-old who hasn’t even hit a ball as a pro'. Just the immense pressure on her from the first day," she says.

"She had a really chequered time, emotionally and mentally. A lot of players were ruined by the system. It was a pretty tough world to be in anyway, and if you were only 14, even tougher again."

(Capriati fell off the tracks for a time before rebounding to become world No.1 and win three Grand Slam titles.)

It was Melbourne, and the Australian Open of 1989, where Cordwell had her big chance. She made her way past five opponents and found herself in the last four.

"It just all came together - not that I had been playing amazing tennis, but I think I was quite well-grounded and able to stay in the moment, focus on one match at a time," she says.

The Czech player Helena Sukova – "I’d always had difficulty playing her" – was a step too far in the semifinals, winning 7-6, 4-6, 6-2.

One thing miffed Cordwell. Sukova, who won nine Grand Slam doubles titles, had eliminated Martina Navratilova in the quarter-finals.

"I’d played [Navratilova] back in 1985, had a really good match, had a couple of set points, and she was No.1 and I wanted another chance against her," Cordwell says.

"She’d also made a couple of disparaging comments in the media, to the point that she’d ‘only’ had to play Cordwell in the semis."

Cordwell has one clear memory of that semifinals day. It was Australia Day and as the tie break got serious, the cannon nearby struck up a 21-gun salute. "I remember counting the salute and I looked around and I’d lost about four points. Just lost concentration," she says.

Kiwi tennis greats Onny Parun and Belinda Cordwell, in 2001. Photo: Stuff

Later that year, Cordwell won her solitary WTA singles crown in Singapore, but the injuries began eating away at her and that was that. She had pocketed $376,284 in prizemoney.

"Physically I was a bit of a mess. I would have loved to play a few more years, but I’d started to get badly injured and all the gains I’d made in terms of rankings and credibility seemed to wash away," she says.

"My back was giving me a lot of grief, then I had Achilles and foot problems. When I stopped playing it took 12 to 18 months to come right."

Cordwell had been playing fulltime since she was 16 and admits it was difficult to do anything else initially. "’I didn’t choose to retire and it was hard to move on and think about life after tennis."

She has done stints of tennis commentary and a couple of spells on the Tennis NZ board, and a bit of coaching.

But she can reflect on the greats of the game she mingled and played with.

She remembers watching a "phenomenal" teenage Boris Becker making his way through the early rounds on the outside courts at Wimbledon in 1985, on his way to becoming the first unseeded man to win the title, at just 17.

The same adjective applies to Serena Williams – ‘"right up with the best I’ve seen" - and in terms of their influence on the game, no one goes past Billie Jean King and Navratilova.

"They were real trailblazers and I have a lot of admiration for what they did for the game," says Cordwell.

These days, Cordwell is more likely to be involved in activities at Kuranui College in Greytown, where she is chairperson of the school's board of trustees, than busying herself in tennis matters.

As she once put it well after retiring: "There is so much more to life. The bit that is important is the lesson you end up passing onto your kids.

"That is a cool thing to bring, learning all those values that sport can give you." 

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