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Not a 'girl' for much longer

The way five-year-old |Noppawan Lertcheewakarn had to hold her tennis racquet with both hands for both forehands and backhands was awkward and just plain weird, people thought. She'd never get anywhere with that restricted reach.

Thirteen years later, and still using both hands on both wings, Noppawan is the best girl tennis player on the planet.

The first Thai in history to hold the title of world No 1 junior girl is getting way more power into her double-fisted groundstrokes now, and the unconventional style doubles as a weapon of deception too.

"I never imagined I'd come this far. I only picked up tennis because my parents played and the courts were next to my place,'' says the 17-year-old from Chiang Mai whose nickname is Nok.

Now based in Bangkok and under the patronage of former Cabinet minister Chaiyapak Siriwat, Noppawan is the blazing comet of Thai tennis since last summer's Wimbledon.

Thais know Paradorn Srichaphan and Tamarine Tanasugarn, and have seen their inevitable decline with age, but here was a fresh talent full of potential storming through the junior draw on the verdant lawn at the All England Club.

Like Tammy had done before her, Noppawan grappled her way to the girls' singles final.

There, she withstood the noise of 10,000 partisan British fans to put up a gutsy fight against local hope Laura Robson, ultimately losing the final in three sets.

Then, two months later, as if to prove that her Wimbledon breakthrough was no fluke, the teenager claimed the US Open doubles trophy with Sandra Roma of Sweden.

Noppawan wrapped up the season on the highest note possible, winning her fourth singles title in Indonesia - and securing the year-

 end ranking as No 1 in the world.

"I'm overwhelmed," she says of her lofty position, "especially since I'm the first from Asia.

"I'd love to hold a Slam singles title before my junior year is over,'' she adds, and she's got three remaining chances to realise that dream in 2009 after falling just short in the Australian Open semi-finals in January - once again to Robson.

Poised to kiss the juniors goodbye and join the far more rigorous pro tour next year, Noppawan is now into a challenging transition season. She's restricted her junior programme to just the major events so she can concentrate more on the pro women's circuit.

It's certainly not going to be easy. At last month's Pattaya Open - her first pro event of the season - Noppawan was given a wildcard to play, only to lose in the first round to former top-20 player Shaha Peer of Israel. The score was a devastating 6-1 6-0.

"It sounds like a walkover, but every game was pretty close," she says in her defence, but she admits that moving up is going to be rough.

"I may be No 1 in the juniors but I'm just another underdog on the pro tour, where the level of tennis is quite high."

Noppawan is currently under the supervision of American Chuck Kriese, a high-profile coach whose male charges have cracked the professional top 100. Under the guidance of a specialist like him, the young woman should soon make her mark on the WTA circuit.

"Right now I just have to pick up experience, fix my weaknesses and work harder on the fitness," she says.

"I have to be fit, have big groundstrokes and most importantly play consistent tennis."

Being the world No 1 junior is no guarantee of success in the big leagues. Only three of the top girls since 1994 - Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Svetlana Kuznetsova - have gone on to be No 1 among the professional women, and they'd all won at least one junior Grand Slam.

Can Noppawan become the fourth? She's game to give it a shot - with both hands.

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