Coming back from injury: lessons learnt by NZ’s top player
By the time Marina Erakovic was 17 years old she had won a junior Grand Slam doubles title and was ranked number five in the world. She embarked on the senior pro tour at the age of 18 playing in tournaments all around the world and found that it was ‘a completely different ball game’.
Now 28 years old, Marina is the only Kiwi to have been ranked among the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) top 100 singles players in recent years but admits that her career has had its ‘ups and downs’.
“I broke into the top 100 players for the first time when I was 19 or 20 years old. Since then I have probably had five to six years playing the full year – dealing with injuries has been a bit of a journey.
“It can be very frustrating to go from the top of your game to injury. It was devastating at the beginning, but as you get older you realise that it comes with the territory. You have to treat each one as a little hurdle or obstacle and try to take a longer term view.”
In Marina’s experience, all professional athletes seem to deal with injury in a similar way. “You’ve got to think ‘It is what it is’ and find a level of acceptance. You learn a lot from those moments. It’s important to work on your mental strength because it’s not just the issue of being out — while you’re out, you know that everyone else is improving.”
Maria has learnt more about injury prevention and recovery as the years have gone by. “As a younger player, my tendency was to always push harder and train more, now I realise it’s actually about knowing your body and being smart. These days I do less repetitive exercises and work on the specifics. I’ve always had good upper body strength, so gym work has helped me to build leg strength and power through my glutes.”
One of the challenges faced by all New Zealand professional tennis players is the amount of time spent travelling (around ten months of the year). Their focus has to be on maintaining health and match-fitness despite being constantly on the move.
“I’m just back from four months on the road. It’s really important to schedule in recovery time and pace myself (another lesson that I’ve learnt along the way). It’s also vital to have a plan that makes sure you get the right nutrition.
“I’m only allowed 23kgs of luggage so I prioritise the things that help me stay healthy. I always carry an extra bag for my ‘go-to’ products like Clean Lean Protein, Good Green Stuff, gels and low GI, slow release, whole food bars. The first two months are easy but by the third month of each trip I have to restock. I’ve been lucky with Nuzest. Now that they’ve gone global, I can get hold of their products in the UK and USA so I don’t need to take it all with me.”
Language barriers and issues around water safety and food contamination can cause problems, particularly in Asian countries. “Without access to organic markets and rental cars it can be really hard to eat enough fresh produce in some countries. UK and the USA are easy because they have good supermarkets and online shopping but some of the Asian countries can be much more of a challenge.
“Good Green Stuff gives me some valuable peace of mind here. It quickly and easily provides all the vitamins and nutrients I need and stops me panicking if I can’t get enough fresh greens and vegetables. That kind of peace of mind is invaluable during tournaments – it’s just one less thing to worry about.”
Marina’s approach to nutrition depends upon demand but generally she tries to stick with unprocessed fresh, slow-release food like oats and nuts. “When I’m at home and training, I have a bigger breakfast, a good lunch and taper off in the afternoon and evening. When I’m travelling, food intake depends upon my game time. If I have a 2pm game, I’ll eat around 11.30 am and choose food like rice and fish or chicken. I have vegetables and more protein after the game.
“Clean Lean Protein is a big part of my recovery in training and on the road. I always take Clean Lean Protein in the morning and then again straight after training. When I’m on the road, I take it in the morning and then after a tough game to help me bounce back more quickly.
“Since I started using Clean Lean Protein, I feel like I am recovering better and there’s less stress on my body. I also perform better the next day. I get through about a kilo every month. When I’m travelling in Asia, I have to ration it to make sure that I can pull it out after a long, tough game when I really need it.”
Marina first tried Nuzest products on the advice of fellow tennis pro Rubin Statham (currently New Zealand’s no 2 male player). “I was struggling with lactose so whey-based protein made me feel bloated – dairy obviously wasn’t my friend! I was practicing with Rubin and he put me on to Clean Lean Protein. I really liked it. After a really tough work out, it’s easy to tell when you’re giving your body the right fuel – it’s almost feels like a sense of relief.”
She’s come a long way from the little girl who, at the age of six, left her home town of Split in Croatia with her older sister and parents. It was the final year of the Serbo-Croatian war (1992) and the family was keen to escape the on-going ethnic tension that continued to divide the former Yugoslavia.
A love of tennis ran in the family. Marina’s father and older sister, Djurdjica were both keen players, with Djurdjica ranked third in New Zealand at under 16 level. At the age of 12 years old Marina was playing two to three times during the week and at the weekend with her father and sister. By the time she was 14 or 15 she played every day, training at 6.30am before school. “I remember Mum driving me to tennis in her pajamas. She would head home for a nap before she came to pick me up and take me to school.”
By 16, Marina was playing Junior Grand Slams. “I was really well supported by my high school, Glendowie College. They gave me the freedom to play and assigned a teacher to help support my academic progress but 6th form was very tough. I spent most of my time playing overseas and then had to cram study into a couple of months.”
Some of her early experiences of Junior Grand Slams really stay with Marina. “At Wimbledon, the convention is that the top juniors get access to the senior main draw locker room. I remember being in there and seeing players like Lindsay Davenport walk in. It’s the first time I was really star struck.”
Other career highlights include competing in two Olympic games – Beijing and London. “I was part of two New Zealand Olympics teams and it was amazing to be thrown into such an unreal environment. As a tennis player you get so used to playing on your own – it was fantastic to suddenly be part of a much bigger national team sharing accommodation with athletes across so many disciplines.”
One thing Marina’s competitors have learnt is never to underestimate her determination and drive. After almost 12 months out with a knee injury, Marina came back strongly at Wimbledon this year.
“It was a very good three weeks with a bit of drama thrown in. During the first-round qualifier it had been raining a lot and the courts at Roehampton (where the qualifiers are played) were not great. I was 6-4, 4-2 up and I did a deep backhand slice, hyperextending my freshly recovered right knee, really jarring it.
“I was quite shaken and scared about what it could mean but I managed to close out the set 6-3. I was so happy that my knee turned out to be ok that everything after that point was a bonus. I reckon I played better as a result and went on to win three rounds of the main draw, ending up 5th or 6th in the singles.”
“This year it’s been tough but everything is heading in the right direction now. I hope to finish the year back within the world’s top 100 players.”
Marina has recently been enjoying the luxury of spending a little more time at home after moving from Spanish coach Eduardo Nicolas to New Zealand coach and former Wimbledon champion Wesley Whitehouse. As she heads off to the US Open qualifiers she says that she’s ‘pretty relaxed’.
“I’ve got five or six tournaments in Asia after New York and I’m just happy to see how we go. There’s a lot of tennis left in me yet!”