One of the services the academy offers its players is Energy Lab screenings – where a player can undergo endurance, biomechanical and tactical analysis using Hawkeye technology. An integral component of the player packages, the testing service is also offered to players as a one-off screening. It was this that drew Erika and her mum to the academy.
“I was having some difficulties with my technique on my forehand and I wanted to come here and then show my coach in England what the main issue was with my technique so I could really make the next step,” Erika explains. “The Energy Lab was amazing. I have never seen anything with that much information.”
On her first visit to Bree, the 13-year-old was very impressed with everything at the academy, including the atmosphere.
“Whilst doing the Energy Lab I was training at the academy for two weeks. I instantly fell in love with the training,” she said. “I really enjoy the physical aspects of the training. It’s really professional here. I think the main thing is that the coaches are not afraid to work the kids really hard.”
Back home in the UK Erika had been combining her tennis training at Halton Tennis Centre with her education via the Oxford Home Schooling programme. This meant that choosing the Belgian academy as her training base was a reality.
“Every month you have to send an assignment,” she said. “I communicate by phone if I ever need anything. It means I can travel as much as I want and still keep up with my schooling.”
The journey from her home in Buckinghamshire to Bree takes around five hours by road, via Eurotunnel. Alternatively it is a 45 minutes flight from Stansted to Eindhoven and then a 45-minute drive. Like many aspiring juniors this is only possible because Erika’s mum, Zuleika, is happy to travel with her.
“If Erika wants to come home for the weekend, sometimes I fly out in the morning and come back that night,” she said. “If you book in advance it only costs around £17. Or if I have to take Erika somewhere else too I can drive. In comparison with say Spain and France, Belgium has its advantages.”
Often staying in Bree for three-week blocks, Erika lives with a host family. The academy has a limited amount of accommodation for players and many stay with local families. A few are catered for in a house that can sleep up to eight.
“We are lucky Erika has such a wonderful host family,” says Zuleika. “They are very understanding and it makes her feel like part of the community.”
“I have made a lot of friends really easily, everyone is very polite,” Erika said. “People are all so welcoming. It is a different language and at first I was a bit worried about that but everyone speaks English, even the 10-year-olds. It feels like I am in England most of the time, apart from when people talk Flemish amongst themselves.”
The decision to base herself in Belgium is paying dividends for Erika. “I have learned so much – we’d be here for a while if I told you everything,” she joked. “The main thing is my fitness. The fitness coaches look at the movements of the body with so much detail. Those little inches that you need in tennis, they really treat them seriously.
“I also learned about diet and stuff. It has given me an edge so I feel fit and fast on court”.
And what of the forehand?
“Over the last eight months I have been working very hard with my individual coach and my group coach. I have changed my technique completely so I’m almost like a different player,” she said. “I’m really lucky that I came here because otherwise I would not have changed my technique and I would not have been able to improve as much as I have in a short period.”
Erika is aware of the hard work that lies ahead if she is to achieve her ambition to become a professional. One of the things she likes about the academy is the presence of Clijsters herself.
“Kim comes in quite a lot,” she says. “She has been on court with me a few times in groups. I think that is amazing. It is such an inspiration to see Kim Clijsters, who a lot of young players look up to. It motivates me to work as hard as I can.
“It is amazing to see her. You see what she’s like and her personality. She works really hard. It makes you want to be like her.”
Zuleika has not had the opportunity to talk to Clijsters, but she has often seen her on court. “I do chat a lot with her mother,” she said. “I guess it is good for me as a mother to talk to another mother who has been through the same process. It was quite inspirational for me because she does talk about how difficult it can be.”
Zuleika has plenty of experience as a tennis mum; her 19-year-old son Joseph, a former pupil of Reed’s School in Surrey, is now on a tennis scholarship at an American university. “When Erika was looking where to go,” she explains, “it was quite a big influence that she was going to be somewhere that was run by a woman. She liked the thought people might know how to work well with girls.”
Erika, whose declared ambition is to compete in Grand Slams, said: “I’m really happy here. It is the best place for me. Everything I want is in the academy.”