Nicole Arendt has mixed it with the best on the tennis court, playing on Wimbledon’s centre court in the 90s. At her peak she was number three in the world. But now she’s turned her attention to junior development and building a strong community in the Mountains.
Raised in Princeton, New Jersey, Arendt showed an aptitude for sport early. “My father said I was born with a ball in my hand,” she recalls.
At eight she started playing tennis, and the enthusiasm of her first coach, Ingrid Rehwinkel, was a major factor in her early enjoyment of tennis, as were the challenges her mum Ulli issued, who started playing tennis the same time as her daughter.
“She would say ‘you can play a tournament once you can beat me,’” Arendt said.
It didn’t take long. The active youngster was up early before school running up and down stairs to the basement and hitting a tennis ball on the garage wall.
In 1984 at age 14, Arendt travelled to Australia for the McDonalds Cup, her first big international tournament. Playing in a teams event, America lost in the finals to Australia. Here, she learned how to deal with homesickness, but little did she know in 20 years’ time she’d be calling Australia home.
With one year to go of a public relations degree at the University of Florida, Arendt turned professional in 1991 and put the degree on hold.
“I was willing to sacrifice it,” she recalls. She made a promise to her dad to finish the degree, and honoured that promise 12 years later.
“I’m glad I made that promise,” she said.
The 90s were an exciting decade, with the left-hander steadily gaining a reputation.
Ranked number 25 in the world in women’s doubles, when top five player Manon Bollegraf asked Arendt if she’d like to be her doubles partner, she naturally agreed.
They played their first game together in 1995 and were doubles partners for five years. Arendt has 16 women’s doubles titles to her name, and most were achieved with Bollegraf.
“She was very much the quarterback of the team. She called the shots, how to handle pressures, how to play the game better,” Arendt says.
“A good doubles team will know how to work together, what to say, when to say, how to calm each other down.”
Their best Grand Slam doubles result was reaching the finals of the 1997 Wimbledon Championships in July, to be defeated by Natasha Zvereva from Belarus and Gigi Fernandez from the US.
“When you’re on centre court playing a top player, doing what you love, people are in love/awe of what you do. There’s nothing that can fulfill that,” Arendt said.
Arendt was also in awe of players like Monica Seles. On her 22nd birthday in the 1991 US Open first round – Arendt’s first Grand Slam after turning professional – she faced the tennis great.
“She could anticipate the ball. She would know where you were going before you did.”
In 1996, Arendt played the world number one Steffi Graf at Wimbledon on the centre court, and was resoundingly beaten. But she can still laugh about it now, as she recalls Graf teaching her how to curtsy before the Dutchess of Kent seated in the stands.
“She showed me a lot of what I needed to work on in my game.”
They still have a friendship to this day.
Arendt reached her highest singles ranking on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour in June 1997, when she was ranked 49th in the world. Two months later she achieved her career-high doubles ranking of number 3 in the world.
But later that year playing too many games had taken its toll and she was out for 13 months after surgery on her shoulder. Returning in 1999 to play more doubles than singles, Arendt stayed in the game for another four years.
“I didn’t care if I lost any more. Players can tell,” she said.
“I was losing that drive. I wasn’t putting in what needed to be done.”
So she left the professional circuit, and moved to Australia with her partner Sally after being approached by Tennis Australia to consider running a junior development program. They initially made Sydney their base before moving to Wentworth Falls in June, 2014.
That passion for tennis that kept the athlete going for decades has reignited these days when coaching young players at Katoomba and Wentworth Falls tennis clubs.
“That’s what makes me love the game now, it’s not about me, but how I can teach the kids,” Arendt says.
She particularly enjoys seeing the skill development in kids who have never played tennis before.
“They are the ones I love the most; that didn’t know how to play. They hit the ball and smile; I love it," she says.
“To see the kids come out and learn how to hit a backhand and call it a backhand, and the smile on their faces.”
And while debate during our long, hot Australian summer boiled over about what temperature is safe to play in, with the mercury into the 40s during the Australian Open, and Frenchman Gael Monfils saying he was “dying on the court for 40 minutes” in his match against Novak Djokovic, Arendt wouldn’t be drawn on a specific temperature.
Developing a tolerance for heat, started with teaching kids how to handle rising temperatures in all sports when they’re young, she says.
“The heat’s not going away, if anything it’s getting worse. It’s about being hydrated, wearing the right hat … and breathable shirts.”
Arendt has also worked with some of Australia’s best female players, such as Casey Dellacqua and Sam Stosur, and was impressed by their dedication to the sport.
“Tennis is about consistency,” she says. “And the team that you have with you to help you through.”
“You have to have a passion for it, you’ve got to be willing to work hard, understand what you are good at, your strengths and weaknesses and have people around you that can help you.”
For more information visit her website: www.gamefaces.net.