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Teenage tennis prodigy Harriet Dart is all set for Wimbledon qualifiers

PUBLISHED: 09:17 24 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:05 24 June 2015

Harriet Dart practises on the grass courts at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. Pic: Paolo Minoli

Harriet Dart practises on the grass courts at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. Pic: Paolo Minoli

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Most 18-year-olds are currently finishing school, looking forward to a summer break and possibly university - but West Hampstead's Harriet Dart is no ordinary 18-year-old.

Harriet Dart talks to Ham&High Sport about life on tour. Pic: Paolo MinoliHarriet Dart talks to Ham&High Sport about life on tour. Pic: Paolo Minoli

Having started playing tennis aged seven, she won the Under-18 title at the Cumberland club on Alvanley Gardens at the age of 10 and, the following year, became the youngest ever winner of the senior women’s title. She went full-time when she was 13.

Dart, who attended Sarum Hall primary school in Swiss Cottage and then the Royal School in Hampstead, has continued her meteoric progress. Having been ranked 1,200 in the world last year, she has now shot up to 358.

On Monday she was facing a former top-10 player and Grand Slam finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, at the AEGON International at Eastbourne – her first WTA (Women’s Tennis Assocation) Tour event.

Today she will be fighting for a place in the Wimbledon women’s doubles competition alongside Katy Dunne, having been given a wild card into the qualifiers.

Harriet Dart (far left) with the Cumberland ladies team that retained the Aegon Team Tennis national title in 2014Harriet Dart (far left) with the Cumberland ladies team that retained the Aegon Team Tennis national title in 2014

Friendly and engaging, with a winning smile, Dart is a supremely likeable young sportswoman with none of the airs and graces that sometimes accompany those who have her talent and potential.

Yet she also has an obvious confidence, which is hardly surprising. She lives a very different life to her peers, overcoming constant challenges on and off the court.

While the north Londoner is currently in familiar surroundings in the capital, she spends much of her time away on tour.

Last year she travelled alone apart from a handful of tournaments and, so far in 2015, has spent two weeks in China, two in Thailand, three in India and also played in Glasgow, Florida and most recently Japan and Indonesia.

“I’ve had to grow up very quickly - getting visas, getting to places, being safe about it,” she tells Ham&High Sport at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. “I think I’ve definitely matured a lot over the years - quicker than, say, an average person my age.

“I’ve missed out on a normal life and a normal upbringing, so to speak, with the traditional schooling where you get a break and everything, whereas my tennis is full-on all year round.

“I finished school after GCSEs and now do distance learning via Loughborough [a BTEC in sport]. I do it by myself, which is kind of difficult, especially to motivate myself.

“You always have to have a back-up. What happens if this [tennis] doesn’t work out, and what happens if you get injured? But I’ve managed to balance stuff out, which is nice.

“A lot of people say that because I’ve got such a busy schedule it’s difficult to keep up social things with my friends, for example, but a lot of them are really understanding. They support me with all of that, and I have a really supportive family behind me, so I think all of those factors really help.”

There are complications and drawbacks to life as a teenage tennis prodigy – she is an avid Arsenal fan but had to watch the FA Cup final victory over Aston Villa on a replay because she was flying back from Indonesia during the match. But make no mistake - Dart is living her dream.

“Definitely from a young age I wanted to be a professional tennis player,” she says. “That was the path I wanted to take. It’s difficult because obviously it’s expensive as a sport and doing education via distance was suffering a little bit, so you kind of have to balance it out.

“But probably since I first went full-time, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a tennis player. I was 13 when I went to Bisham Abbey and I was there five days a week.”

Dart’s formative years were spent at The Cumberland Club on Alvanley Gardens, sitting courtside watching her mum Susie play tennis, while her dad Nick played squash.

She has gone on to help the club’s ladies team win the AEGON Team Tennis national title for the last two years in a row, and still represents them when her schedule allows.But these days she trains at the Riverside Northwood club – part of the JTC set-up – under the eye of her coach David Felgate and Alan Jones.

In 2013 Dart was on the junior circuit, competing in all four of the Grand Slams, but since March 2014 she has taken the step up to the senior tour.

There are highs and lows, and this week has been no different. On Monday she was competing in a WTA premier event for the first time at Eastbourne, battling with the world No49, Cibulkova – who reached the 2014 Australian Open final.

Dart suffered a brave 6-1, 6-3 defeat, but there was further disappointment in store because the timing of that match ruled her out of the Wimbledon singles competition.

Dart had been given a wild card into yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) qualifiers at SW19 but, due to a rule concerning participation in two tournaments within the same week, she had to be eliminated from the Eastbourne event before 4pm on Monday.

That should have been simple. Her match was scheduled first on Court One and was due to start at 11am, but persistent rain and the ensuing delay meant she was still in action against Cibulkova when that deadline passed.

It was hugely unlucky but she has stoically focused on the positives: “It was my first main draw in a WTA premier event,” reflects Dart. “Cibulkova has been in the top 10 in the world, she’s a Grand Slam finalist, and it was a really good experience for me.

“I played pretty well and I felt good. She’s obviously very consistent at what she does and she was able to do it for a longer period of time than I could.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to play a WTA major. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t be in the Wimbledon qualifiers. You’ve just got to look ahead really, it is what it is.”

The consolation is that yesterday (Tuesday) Dart was handed a wildcard into the Wimbledon women’s doubles event. She will be teaming up with Dunne at Roehampton today, needing to win two matches to earn a place in the main draw at SW19.

The pair face a tough task, having been pitted against the fourth seeds, Poland’s Magda Linette and Luxembourg’s Mandy Minella, but Dart is certainly not lacking in fighting spirit.

“I’m very competitive,” she said. “I’ll be playing ping-pong with my sister [17-year-old Phoebe] and I’ll want to beat her so bad. It’s the same when I’m playing cards with my friends. There’s definitely a competitive streak in me.

“I play pretty aggressively, stay on the base line. I’d say I’m a very good competitor so I’m fighting really hard all of the time, and definitely that’s my strength. I’m developing a lot of things in my game at the moment so I’m feeling confident on my ground strokes.

“You can keep improving everything all the time. Even the greatest players have stuff they’re working on - but I think getting stronger physically and getting quicker, that’s definitely one of my main focuses at the moment.

“I have goals and I speak with my coach, and definitely Australian Open qualifying for January is a goal that I want to achieve, so that’s setting the bar quite high.”

Dart’s idol is Maria Sharapova: “I’ve looked up to her and I think her attitude and everything about her is just amazing,” she says.

“I’ve got to see her practise quite a few times and [see her] play some matches so that’s been really cool, but never actually got to meet her. I’ve been with her in a press situation, at the Australian Open, and I was going ‘Oh my God!’ – proper fangirling.”

Harriet Dart is sponsored by Bjorn Borg clothing and Babolat racket equipment and is managed by Global Sporting Connections (GSC), who can offer sponsorship and advertising packages featuring patches sewn onto her kit, either on a long-term arrangement or for individual matches and events.

Prospective sponsors can contact GSC’s Catherine Sanders by emailing catherine.sanders@gscworldwide.com or by calling 07976 225211 or 0203 805 2288.

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