AUSTRALIA'S NEXT BIG THING: CHARLOTTE KEMPENAERS-POCZ


Photograph: Getty Images

While week 1 at Melbourne Park saw the end of one star Australian’s singles career in Sam Stosur, it may also signal the start of another.

17-year-old South Australian, Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz gained her first junior grand slam main draw win on Saturday out on court 13 defeating Russian 16th seed Elena Pridankina 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 in 2 hours and 14 minutes.

Kempenaers-Pocz was able to overpower her higher-ranked opponent with the Australian’s serve and powerful forehand particularly damaging as the match wore on.

Speaking to The First Serve after her milestone win, Kempenaers-Pocz noted it took some time to settle into the match before eventually breaking her opponent's will.

“Yeah, I guess the nerves got to me in the first set, and I wasn’t going for my shots. When in the second and third sets I just knuckled down and just kept at her. She was getting angry and I thought if I just kept going she would crumble,” Kempenaers-Pocz said.

After problem-solving at the end of the first set, Kempenaers-Pocz was both relieved and excited when the umpire finally called “game, set and match”.

“It was everything mixed in one. I was just so happy to be on the court playing in front of the crowd and playing in a home grand slam. It’s really a dream come true.

“I just wanted to play my game. I didn’t want to get stuck playing her type of tennis. I wanted to just go big on my serve and go for my shots as much as I can.

“I took a toilet break to reset after the first set. I thought the first set wasn’t too great and I just wanted to do everything I could to fix it. I’m happy with how I went.”

While Kempenaers-Pocz is only ranked 215 in the ITF junior ranks and outside the top 1000 on the WTA singles tour, she is highly rated at Tennis Australia as COVID-19 related lockdowns and border issues have essentially halted her ability to play ITF and WTA Tour events and build a ranking over the last 2 years.

“Yeah, I don’t know many of them [other juniors on tour]. I know a few of them from playing juniors and ITF’s a couple of years ago but these last few years I haven’t been able to travel so it’s always hard coming up against new people.”

Notwithstanding Kempenaers-Pocz’s inability to play professional-level matches, she’s been endeavouring to play as much as possible – where possible.

“Honestly, I’ve just been training so much and playing as many local matches as I can. A few state league matches, some AMT’s (Australian Money Tournaments), the ITF’s when they’re on.”

And that seems to have held the South Australian in good stead.

Likewise, at the beginning of 2021, Tennis Australia granted Kempenaers-Pocz wildcards into the doubles draw of the Melbourne 1 lead-in event, the Australian Open, and Philip Island Trophy. Although she ended the summer without a win, the experience has been invaluable and has propelled the junior to bigger and better things this summer.

To illustrate, after receiving a wildcard into qualifying for the opening Adelaide International this season, Kempenaers-Pocz defeated Canadian world number 143 Rebecca Marino 6-4, 6-4, before going down to Norwegian Ulrikke Eikeri (284) in three very tight sets.

Not done there, thanks to a Tennis Australia wildcard, Kempenaers-Pocz teamed up with Queenslander Kim Birrell to enter the women’s doubles draw in this year’s Open. However, the pair were not there merely to make up the numbers as they took down the more experienced (and highly fancied) Arantxa Rus and Nuria Parrizas-Diaz 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

Unsurprisingly, Kempenaers-Pocz was simply thrilled to be playing with her more experienced partner whom she looks up to.

“It was actually unreal. It was so fun. I loved playing with her. It was our first time playing together and it was a really good experience.

“I think I look up to most of the Aussies now… Ash Barty, Dasha (Saville), Maddy Inglis, Kim Birrell, Priscilla Hon.”

When prompted on what she had learned from her WTA experiences, Kempenaers-Pocz remains level-headed but is acutely aware of the differing levels of consistency and mental strength of her WTA opponents as against those on the junior tour.

“It’s been a real eye-opener. The mentality from WTA to the juniors is so different. I think it’s just been good to experience a mixture of everything.”

Perhaps the most surreal experience for Kempenaers-Pocz during her short career to date was being paired with 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the 2021 Australian Open women’s doubles draw.

Facilitated by fellow South Australian and Halep’s then-coach, Darren Cahill, the softly spoken Kempenaers-Pocz was seemingly lost for words when prompted to describe her experience playing with a grand slam champion.

“It was just a dream come true. Playing with someone so good. It was a fairy tale.”

The Halep experience is a long way removed from Kempenaers-Pocz’s humble beginnings as a competitive younger sister who simply wanted to beat her brother at his chosen sport.

“My brother use to play [tennis] and being a younger sibling I guess I just wanted to beat him. I started when I was 5 and he wasn’t very good so quit and I just kept going.”

Nonetheless, Kempenaers-Pocz doesn’t plan on slowing down now that she’s the family’s number one player. The powerful South Australian plans to emulate two of the biggest names in the sport.

“I want to try and have the aggression of Serena Williams and the [variety] that Ash has and mix it all into one.”

However, for now, Kempenaers-Pocz is single-minded in her desire to go as far as she can in girl’s singles draw.

Although it’s not getting any easier.

Up next in the second round she will face highly-rated 15-year-old Japanese up and comer, Sara Saito, who despite her age is currently ranked 52nd in the ITF junior rankings.

Nonetheless, with her powerful game and aggressive mentality on court, Kempenaers-Pocz will take some beating from any of the juniors out on tour.