Fresh from receiving Tennis Australia’s precious reciprocal wildcard into the French Open on the day before her 25th birthday, Australian Kimberly Birrell is ready to make a splash on the Parisian clay.
To many fans, the 111th-ranked Birrell was the obvious choice for the women’s main draw wildcard as the next-best ranked Australian behind Ajla Tomljanovic and the chasing pack of Olivia Gadecki (149), Jamie Fourlis (150) and Priscilla Hon (164) who are playing well although yet to break through at WTA level.
Speaking to The First Serve ahead of this week’s WTA 250 in Strasbourg, France, Birrell shared her overwhelming excitement at receiving a wildcard into her first Roland Garros main draw knowing she will have her parents in the stands.
“I just got a text message saying ‘call me when you get a chance’” she revealed.
“My heart started racing. I tried not to think about it too much because you don’t want to get your hopes up and be let down but I was so happy when I found out.
“When I told my parents they were over the moon and they booked a flight to Europe straight away! They were so excited. They’ve been through everything with me so it’ll be great to have them here”
For Birrell, this wildcard is the perfect opportunity to create some new memories at Roland Garros after her only appearance to date was a qualifying campaign in 2019 marred by injury.
“At the time I had been really struggling with my elbow. I’d withdrawn from a tournament in America and I got to Paris early to see some doctors but I already knew [my elbow] wasn’t good.” Birrell recalled.
“I didn’t train much leading up to my match. I feel like I played okay but I lost in three sets. My parents were there so that was nice but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to play at my best.
“Then the next week I found out I needed another surgery.
“I’m looking forward to making new memories this year.”
It’s been a remarkable start to the year for Birrell who won a ITF $60k event in Orlando, Florida; made the quarter-finals from qualifying at a WTA250 in Mexico, then qualified for the Indian Wells WTA 1000 main draw in the space of a month.
It was an inspired run and something that the German-born Aussie was able to do off-broadway and outside of the bright lights of Melbourne Park.
“We get the best out of ourselves playing in Australia and in front of our friends and family,” Birrell said.
“Then all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of nowhere playing in front of only a few people.
“It’s so different. It’s like ‘Oh yeah, back to reality’. But we love it. You can’t put yourself through all this without enjoying it.”
As to what she attributes to her run of form, Birrell says it was a ‘combination of things’ having only played four tournaments between Wimbledon 2019 (a month after that 2019 Roland Garros campaign) and the start of 2022.
“For me, it’s a little different because I’ve been out for so long, ” the Queenslander opined.
“It took the whole year last year to find my confidence and find my identity as a player. By the end of last year, I felt like I was starting to find it.
“That’s why I decided to go overseas after AO and miss some of the events in Australia. I just had a gut feeling.
“It’s enticing to stay and play those ITF events and it was more daunting to go overseas because I was playing tournaments I’d never played before.
“Sometimes I think you need to put yourself in those situations to get the best out of yourself.
“I’d played so many matches I was feeling quite confident and I think it came together in that moment. It was cool.”
Naturally, the next frontier for Birrell to conquer is breaking through into the top 100 where direct entry into grand slams is guaranteed and the comforts of the WTA tour lifestyle can be enjoyed on a weekly basis.
Birrell, however, refuses to get ahead of herself and acknowledges she has a lot to learn to remain a consistent tour-level player, including improving on red clay, a surface she had previously avoided to protect her elbow.
“I’m still learning. This is my first full year playing mostly WTA Tour events week to week.
“This is also my first full clay court season.
“On paper, I don’t think this surface suits me but I’m focusing on making sure I’ve got a good attitude and I’m blocking out any negative commentary. It’s more about your attitude and clay is such a neutraliser.
“It’s been a really good experience this last month. I’ve learned a lot about my game and I think the clay helps to identify some areas where you can improve.
“I think I can be dangerous on clay. I’ve worked really hard on my fitness and I’m moving well which is a huge part of it.”
“You can’t just avoid a surface. To be the best you have to commit to each surface.
“I even considered playing some more hardcourt events and avoiding the clay but I just thought… I owed it to myself to give it a go. You don’t improve without trying.
As to whether Birrell truly believes she belongs at the top of the game, she was unequivocal in her belief in herself and her desire to trust her processes and those around her.
“I do think I belong.” Birrell asserted.
“I just have to put my head down and do what I’ve been doing and then it’ll happen. I just have to believe that it will happen and that I deserve to be there.
“I’m not expecting it to happen overnight but I hope it happens by the end of the year. It’d be a huge financial help and would change a lot.”
“I think I’ve put in a lot of hard work, I know it’s a cliché but I’ve put my whole life into this. It would be amazing to get there but I’m trying not to think about it.”
On the men’s side, Thanasi Kokkinakis was the lucky wildcard recipient and will make his fourth appearance in the main draw. Ironically, he and Birrell shared some time together recently at the Italian Open.
“We actually shared a car in Rome and we got chatting about the wildcard. At that point, neither of us knew, but we were just wishing each other good luck,” Birrell shared.
“He said he felt like he had been playing really well. I’m really stoked for him. I’m looking forward to following his results.”