For many successful sportspersons there is a watershed moment, a moment that defines who they are, a moment that self-doubt becomes self-belief. For Kimberly Birrell, the 2014 junior Australian Open may well prove to be one of those moments.
At just 15, Birrell made it all the way to the semifinals of her first Grand Slam tournament, defeating three of the world’s top 15 players along the way. “It was a great week, it’s been amazing, I didn’t want it to end.
I learnt so much about myself,” Birrell said. “I’ve just got to get back on the practice court and keep this going, it’s only the beginning.” What was just as impressive was the fight she showed in most of her matches just to get that far.
Birrell came back from a set and a break of serve down in three of the four matches she won, showing a plethora of guts and mental toughness well beyond her years, often against older opponents. This Lleyton Hewitt-esque quality became a trademark of Birrell’s throughout the tournament and endeared her to the Australian fans.
“I got to the point where I felt that any match that went to a third set worked in my favour. I like to just keep fighting hard for every single point.” While losing the semifinal was an obvious disappointment for the Queensland youngster, her coach Chris Mahony knows that the overall result was a definite positive and had nothing but praise for his precocious star pupil.
“She was down 6-3 6-5 30-0 in the first round and she fought so hard just to get through that match and stay in the tournament,” Mahony said. “She ended up beating a couple of girls in the top 20 and making the semi-finals and wasn’t far from taking that match into a third set there and then you never know what happens.
“It’s a real breakthrough for Kim and she’s been working so hard this year. You can see it all come together and she’s making good strides. She’s an unbelievable girl with good personal qualities, so she’s got a fantastic career ahead of her.” Mahony is the manager of the National Tennis Academy in Brisbane, he works with many of Australia’s most promising talents and has coached Birrell for the past year.
He said Birrell, who was also a semi-finalist at last month’s Australian 18-and-under Championships, sat comfortably alongside the best of them. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of the good, young teenage Australian girls and she’s right up there in her results, but also her personal qualities,” Mahony said.
“Her character is so good. You just know that’s going to give them a chance to maximise that potential, so she’s a fantastic kid and comes from a great family. Her dad (John) is a coach as well.” “He spent an incredible number of hours on the court with her when she was young and they’ve done a good job to raise a good player and also a quality person.” Mahony was quick to nominate Birrell’s powerful double-handed backhand as the most lethal weapon in her arsenal, but says that her forehand and serve are something that are progressing very well, despite a few set-backs.
Birrell had been carrying an abdominal injury through the second half of 2013 which severely restricted her ability to practice her serve in particular. “Her serve is improving and it’s really only been a month she’s been able to practice it properly,” Mahony said.
“She had the injury for a couple of months, it was particularly bad throughout August and September and she’s worked hard to rehab it and move on. “It seems like it’s pulled up pretty well from the big load of the last three weeks in Hobart, Traralgon and Melbourne and she’s been working hard on her mental side with Ruth Anderson, our psychologist too.” Mahony says it is the culmination of hard work in all facets of Birrell’s game that led to her outstanding results in Melbourne.
“We saw the benefits of her mental training this week. She dug herself out of many holes in several matches, so the confidence she can take in that side of her game out of this performance is huge. “She’s been working super hard on her fitness as well and committing to get into the gym more and it was just great to see it all come together for her, because she really deserves it.” Away from the court Birrell describes herself as loud, friendly and energetic.
She nominates sushi as her favourite food and ice cream as her weakness.
If she wasn’t playing tennis, she believes she could well be asking the questions rather than answering them. “I’m hoping I can play tennis professionally, but I’m also going to finish school and I want to study.
I love to write and meet people, so maybe journalism or something like that might appeal to me,” she said. Unlike most 15-year-olds, Birrell doesn’t name one of the current crop of top players as her favourite.
“I love Kim Clijsters, even though she’s not playing anymore. I think she’s just such an amazing person on and off the court. I love the way she carries herself and handles herself. I think our game styles are quite similar too.” In an era where is not unusual to see most players sporting headphones, listening to their favourite “psyche-up music” shortly before a match, Birrell is a little bashful and rosy-cheeked in offering the answer to the type of music she likes to prepare for a match with.
“I’m going to have to say Taylor Swift,” she said with a laugh. “I love her. I always pump up her music before I go on. I know that sounds really funny. I always get paid out by my friends because of this.
I’ve been to three of her concerts.” As for the long-term plans for Birrell, there is a combination of dreaming big and aiming high, the similar goals of most budding professionals. “Obviously, I’m living my dream right now, being able to play tennis, hopefully I can do that for the rest of my life.
My biggest aspiration is to be No.1 and play as a pro at all of the Grand Slams and maybe even win a Grand Slam title,” She said. As for her more immediate plans, it was with a tinge of lament that the usually bubbly 15-year-old conveyed her short term future, through the veil of a wry smile.
“Unfortunately it’s back to school next week, so I’ll have to concentrate on that for a little while I guess, but hopefully with this result in Melbourne, I’ll be able to travel overseas a bit more to play this year.” Without a doubt, if Kimberly Birrell continues the hard work that has led her to her current successes, she may be travelling the world for many years to come.