An ace up her sleeve

Tamarine Tanasugarn is turning her attention to future tennis stars as she plans her retirement.

With her long career in professional tennis coming to an end, Tamarine Tanasugarn has found a new way to serve up aces.

As the head coach of The Ace kids academy, Thailand’s most successful female tennis player is passing her skills down to the next generation.

The fiercely competitive look that has been a trademark of her 22-year professional career is nowhere to be seen as she smiles and encourages children under the age of 10 to practise their serves and backhands.

“Yes, excellent! Let’s high five,” Tamarine, 38, puts her hand up to congratulate one student’s perfect swing.

Other children sit on the sidelines while waiting for their turn, playing with the tennis balls that are scattered around after being hit and mis-hit to the four corners of the brightly coloured indoor court.

Tamarine, widely known as Tammy, has coached national tennis players aged under 18 before, but she is quickly discovering how challenging teaching the tiny ones can be.

“They are quite cute and fun, but they have short concentration spans,” she said. “It is very challenging for me to bring all my skills and techniques to teach these young students.

“I would like to share my experience with the young ones, to give them an education at an early age.”

The winner of four WTA singles titles and 14 ITF tournaments said tennis is a great way for children to learn about sportsmanship.

“It gives them the opportunity to know their friends and opponents. It’s also good for them to start at a young age. It’s good for their skills, for their hand-eye coordination. It improves their concentration to watch and hit the ball — the package is important.”

DOWN THE LINE

Tamarine opened The Ace at The Crystal, a community mall in Bangkok’s Lat Phrao district, in November. It is part of her planned retirement from the tennis circuit, which has been part of her life since she turned pro in 1994.

The former world No 19 also plans to open a training centre for aspiring professional players in the months ahead. However,
a location for the Tamarine Tennis Academy is still to be finalised.

“My plan is to develop tennis in Thailand to improve and increase our tennis players worldwide.

Highly strung: Tamarine Tanasugarn reacts to a missed point during her quarter final loss to Venus Williams at the 2008 Wimbledon tennis championships, her best grand slam result.

“I think Thai tennis and Asian tennis players have a lot of potential,” she said, pointing to the success of her friend Li Na, the Chinese player who became the first Asian grand slam champion when she won the 2011 French Open.

“Thailand should not have much of a problem because we have good skills,” Tamarine said.

Once in the world’s top 20 in both singles and doubles, and with a particularly impressive record on grass, Tamarine won gold for Thailand at last year’s Asian Games in Incheon with partner Luksika Kumkhum. However, she has seen her ranking slip in recent years and feels the time has come to leave the competition circuit.

“I have decided that maybe I will quit tennis this year,” she told Brunch. “I still don’t know yet when it will be, but it will be coming soon. It’s kind of sad but it’s time for me to do something else.”

Her last tournament may be the World Tennis Thailand Championship in Hua Hin in December, she added.

But Tamarine is not slowing down in the way you might expect of a prospective retiree. Instead, not only is Tamarine launching a tennis academy, but she is set to become an officer in the Royal Thai Police Force. During the week she met with Brunch, she was attending the orientation training course for new police staff.

“I did it for my parents. They would be happy now that I have good and secure employment,” she said.

The decision brings her closer to the family after years of globetrotting. Tamarine also holds a master’s of business administration from Bangkok University.

LOVE-ALL

It is no exaggeration to say Tamarine made tennis popular among Thai people. Before her arrival on the pro circuit in the mid-1990s, closely followed by the success of Paradorn Srichaphan, it was thought boxing was the only professional sport in which Thais had a chance to make money.

In the early ’90s, tennis was a game for a handful of enthusiasts and an even smaller number who had professional ambitions, but after Tamarine and Paradorn took on the world, children were quick to pick up a tennis racket.

Born in the US, Tamarine first drew the attention of Thais when she reached the junior final at Wimbledon in 1995. Although she lost the match, her regular appearances at grand slams in the years that followed gave many Thais dreams of pursuing tennis professionally.

The subsequent success of Paradorn and Danai Udomchoke has cemented local interest in the game.

“I started playing tennis when I was four,” Tamarine recalled. “But that was for fun, an activity within the family. My older sister, she’s the one who started playing tennis and brought the sport to my family.”

Tamarine excelled with her flat ground strokes and heavily sliced serve, which is regarded as her secret weapon. After she turned
pro in 1994, Tamarine competed in almost every world-class tournament. She earned the highest ranking of any Thai female player, and regularly represented
the country in Hopman and Fed cup competitions, and took the country to the semi-finals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

Grass has been her best surface, making the semi-finals of Wimbledon with doubles partner Marina Erakovic in 2011 and the quarter finals of the singles in 2008 in a return to form after injury.

Asked what her proudest moment is, she said, “I felt great about my tennis at the quarter finals in Wimbledon.”

Although she lost to Venus Williams in the 2008 Wimbledon quarter final 6-4, 6-3, Tamarine put up a good fight throughout the exciting match and it stands as her best grand slam result. “It’s great achievement for me to play at Wimbledon.”

Despite her success, in person Tamarine is unassuming and polite. She has never acted as a celebrity. Her private life remains private, period.

As her professional counterparts retired over the years, Tamarine continued playing into her late thirties. Even at an age where many athletes would have shelved their rackets, Tamarine was picking up the occasional WTA and ITF title, such as Osaka in 2010.

Asked what the most valuable thing she has learned from tennis has been, she said, “Sportsmanship. Tennis gives me something and I have to give something to other people as well. Not only taking, you have to learn to give to others as well.

“Tennis has given me my life and the opportunity to be me, be myself. In particular, tennis has given me the opportunity to see and explore the world,” she said.

As for any advice she has for aspiring tennis players, she said, “I think the first thing you should have is the dream of becoming a tennis player, if you want to be successful. You have to be determined and enjoy the thing you are doing, and give everything to whatever you are doing.”

Against the best: While Tamarine has knocked over several No 1 players in her career, she was no match for Serena Williams at the 2003 Australian Open. Williams has won all six of their encounters.

In the swing: Tammy watches one of her students practise a shot at her Ace kids tennis academy.

Early success: Tamarine Tanasugarn on her way to a win over Maureen Drake at Wimbledon in 1999. Tamarine’s success in the 1990s inspired many Thais to pick up a tennis racket.

Double act: Russian Maria Sharapova and Tamarine Tanasugarn won the women’s doubles at the Japan Open in 2003. At her peak, Tamarine was ranked No 15 in the world for doubles.

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