Erakovic embraces role as New Zealand's lone warrior


MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Anyone walking past court six at Melbourne Park on Wednesday could have quite easily thought they had wandered into the little known and geographically tiny enclave of New Mel-andia.

Chants of "Kiwi! Kiwi! Kiwi!" echoed around the jam-packed court as Marina Erakovic, New Zealand's only representative on the top tier tennis tours played her second round Australian Open match against Christina McHale of the United States.

"It's nice, especially here in Melbourne that a lot of them come out and support me and that's terrific," the world number 62 told Reuters before her match with McHale, which she lost in three sets.

"On the other hand, I really want to do well for the Kiwis and it's a little bit of pressure but it's all right. New Zealand is a small place and if I do well that's great."

The 23-year-old has "pretty much" been the South Pacific nation's only representative at the elite level for five years and with number two Sacha Jones' defection to Australia this month, she said it was a bit of a lonely existence.

"Sacha has turned Aussie but to tell you the truth I am the only Kiwi at a lot of tournaments so it's not a huge change for me (to be travelling without compatriots)," she said.

"I do see the guys like Mike Venus and Rubin Statham when they turn up to play quallies (qualifiers) for the grand slams, and there's not a lot of us that are up there (at the elite level) but we have a few trying their best."

Erakovic, born in Croatia but raised in Auckland when her family moved to New Zealand when she was six, has a toned down 'Kiwi twang', brought about by growing up speaking her native tongue, travelling "a lot" in the United States and "Hollywood movies."

Like other New Zealanders, however, when she is overseas and hears the tell-tale nasal drawl that the diaspora never seems to lose, she pricks up her ears.

"Yeah, definitely. Or whenever I see an All Blacks jersey or silver fern, I'm like (staring intently), then I wait until they open their mouth," she said. "I try to spot them."

Erakovic having battled back from two years of injury in 2011, reached her first WTA Tour final in Quebec City and recorded her first win over a top-20 player when she beat Victoria Azarenka at Stanford.

"Last year was a good year. I had a good year body wise, no injuries and I played all the matches I wanted to," she said. "I played a lot of tournaments and built a lot of confidence."

That confidence transferred over to her doubles play, when she made last year's Wimbledon semi-finals with Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn, though she had also won five career titles.

This year, instead of picking up a doubles partner when she arrived at an event, she was going to try to cement a regular partnership with Taiwan's Chuang Chia-jung, a doubles specialist.

They made the Hobart International final immediately before the Australian Open, but then were beaten by Spanish pair Carla Suarez Navarro and Silva Soler-Espinosa 6-3 7-6 in the first round on Wednesday.

"I like the game and I play well but singles is my priority," Erakovic said.

Erakovic, who is based in New Zealand but lives out of a suitcase for much of the year, said her next trip would be to Bogota, Colombia.

"Then Monterrey. Miami. Indian Wells. Then..."

Though wherever she pitches up, she'll be watching out for that familiar black jersey and twang chanting: "Go Niu Zilund!"

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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