Paige Hourigan was three years old when Venus Williams won her first Grand Slams.
This month the 21-year-old spent a week practicing with the tennis superstar as she began her own professional career.
Hourigan made a flying visit home to Turakina this week after she missed out on qualifying for the main singles draw of the ASB Classic in Auckland but went all the way to the doubles final alongside American Taylor Townsend.
“It’s been really nice to be at home and relax and get away from it because sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming,” she says.
“But I guess it sinks in more when people talk to you and tell you how well you’ve done. That’s really great.”
While it’s the start of her professional career it’s taken at least 15 years for her to get here.
“I played at the Turakina courts when I was six,” Hourigan says.
“They had all the people and farmers from around Turakina come in and play tennis and night time and I remember being there with my dolls house a watching Mum and Dad.”
She was a sporting kid, represented Whanganui in several sports, and was “super competitive and didn’t like to lose”.
Tennis became the focus from high school, first at Nga Tawa Diocesan School in Marton before she transferred to Saint Kentigern College in Auckland for tennis.
But it was a tennis scholarship to Georgia Tech in the United States which really laid the foundation for her fledgling professional career.
“Being able to go there and have such a great coach, such a great competition over there just made me mature as a person a lot,” Hourigan says.
“I was able to go through a lot of highs and lows over there and really play some of my best tennis.
“It was the best decision I ever made for myself as a person, my maturity, and also my fitness and tennis game.”
While practicing up to four hours a day Hourigan also studied towards a degree in business marketing.
“It’s so cool,” she says.
“I’m so glad I’m finally done with my studies and I have something to fall back on and that’s ultimately what I always wanted so I wasn’t doing nothing with my life, you know?”
But assuming her tennis career takes off; “I just think marketing helps me with budgeting and using my money wisely. I think it’s very helpful.”
Hourigan is currently ranked 543rd in the world and in 2019 her goal is to climb to somewhere around the 200 mark which would earn her Grand Slam qualifiers and higher level tournaments.
“Me being [at the ASB Classic] and being around all the pros, I don’t feel overwhelmed, I feel like I’ve put in the hard work and I’ve done everything I need to do to get there,” she says.
“For me right now it just about playing matches and getting my ranking up and I just feel like I’m ready to take it on.”
That’s all about finding tournaments and fitting in a schedule around training blocks and rest.
“It is really difficult so you have to have a lot of input from people who really know what they’re talking about,” she says.
“I’ll take what I can get right now with my ranking but further on then I’ll be able to stick what I want to do.”
Hourigan doesn’t flinch in saying she wants to be world number 1.
“I think that’s what everyone who plays tennis wants to be and I really think I can do it,” she says.
“I’m really going to try and read a lot of books in my off time now that I don’t have to study and just really focus on myself and improve inside.
“Tennis is so much about the mental aspect and I know that I have the skills and the fitness level and the ability to do it, it’s just that sometimes when you’re on the court and you react to point differently.”
Hourigan got a glimpse at what it takes when she had a few practise sessions with former world number 1 and one of the biggest names on the games, Venus Williams, at the ASB Classic.
Tournament director Karl Budge contacted Hourigan after she was knocked out of the singles qualifiers and said Williams needed a hit.
“Yeah, I mean pretty cool,” she says.
“Of course, you freak out at first because you don’t want to stuff up for them because they’re so good.
“I’ve actually been messaging her the last couple of days because I didn’t get to say goodbye to her because as soon as they lose they leave to the next tournament.
“But yeah, its been great, the whole week with her I was on a buzz.”
She also sat in Williams’ supporters box for the week.
“I asked her because that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Hourigan says.
“Being with her and her team who are so lovely and easy to talk to really helped me believe in myself for the rest of the week and believe in myself that I can do well.”
Hourigan says that experience helped drive her the doubles final in front of a sold out home crowd.
“It was amazing. They’re all cheering and saying ‘here we go Kiwis’.
“It’s no often that you get to come home and perform really well at home. It was an unforgettable experience, really.”