By Alana Mitchelson
(January 21, 2014) MELBOURNE – Katrine Steffenson seemed to have been destined for a career in sport. Following in the footsteps of her Danish father who was a sportsman himself, she was inevitably introduced to an array of sports from a young age.
The 17-year-old made her Junior Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open this year, reaching the second round in both singles and doubles. She is currently the No. 39 junior in the ITF rankings.
We caught up with Katrine as she approaches her last couple of years on the Junior Circuit before facing the challenging transition into the professional ranks and heard about her inherent passion for the sport.
Alana Mitchelson: How was it that you were first introduced to tennis?
Katrine Steffenson: My older brother played when he was about 11, I think, and then I just followed him. I started when I was four and then when I was about six, I started playing some local tournaments and I just kept playing. Thirteen years I’ve been playing, so a while. I’ve been playing ITF for three years now.
AM: Does your brother still play too? Do you ever challenge him to a match on occasion?
KS: He’s 24 now. He used to play on a club team for Dartmouth, but he’s working in the city so not much time to play. We used to play together when we were younger but not much anymore.
AM: Can you describe the town where you’ve grown up?
KS: I’m from Scarsdale, New York. It’s about 30 minutes from the city. It’s kind of a small town but it’s nice.
AM: Was tennis always your main priority sport when you were growing up?
KS: Well in the beginning I played soccer, basketball and tennis. Then when I was about 12, I had to chose between the three so I chose tennis and that seemed to work out for me.
AM: That must have been a difficult decision to make.
KS: Yeah, it was really hard. My dad, Henrik Steffensen, was actually a professional soccer player in Denmark. So he kind of wanted me to play soccer and continue on with that. But my mum wanted me to play tennis, so she was happy about that.
AM: What’s been the highlight of your tennis career so far?
KS: I mean, this has been pretty exciting because it’s my first time playing main draw of a Junior Grand Slam. I’ve tried the past three summers to qualify for the US Open and Wimbledon and stuff, but this has been my first time playing main draw. And winning the first round is really exciting. It’s good experience for me.
AM: Growing up playing and traveling with all the other American Junior players, you must develop a nice bond with one another. Can you talk about that?
KS: Yeah, definitely. When I was 13 through to 16, I travelled and trained with the USTA. We went to South America and played tournaments there. We just practised together and it’s kind of good to have other girls that you’re competing with but, at the same time, on the same team. We push each other and I think we improve through that. So it’s been good and the support has been great from the US team and all of the Americans back home.
AM: How do you find being competitive with your friends?
KS: Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to switch from being friends to not being friends on the court. I used to struggle with that but I think now I’m past that. At the beginning I didn’t want to, you know, be too competitive and lose the friendship but at the same time you also want to win. So it’s hard to balance that but I think I’ve handled it well over the years.
AM: What music do you like to listen to before a match to get into the zone?
KS: Usually songs to pump you up, so pop or rap. I like Drake, Drake is good. He’s always my go to.
AM: What hobbies do you have aside from tennis?
KS: I still like to play soccer. I like sports a lot. And reading, I like to read in my spare time. Cooking too and, I guess, watching movies.
AM: What are your favorite books?
KS: My favourite book so far is Pride and the Prejudice. To Kill A Mockingbird is good too.
AM: Oh okay, so you’re quite the fan of classics then. If not pursuing a career in tennis, what could you picture yourself doing?
KS: Playing soccer probably. I think I’d maybe be playing on my high school team, I don’t know.
AM: Tim Smyczek was talking about the challenge of transitioning from the Junior Circuit to Pro Tour last week. Can you talk me through how you’re preparing for that? I guess it’s just a couple of years away for you now.
KS: I think it’s just more mental, for sure. I think Juniors have to mature to play in the professional ranks. That’s the big difference, just the mental edge. And consistently playing really well because in Juniors you get away with playing a few good games and stuff but for pros, you have to be focused on every single point. That’s the main difference.
AM: Talk me through what you think about the standard of the women’s game, especially since Serena Williams came along.
KS: Yeah, I think she’s pushed a lot of players to improve a lot because they know they have to compete against her. She’s actually helped tennis a lot to an extent.
AM: Out of the women’s players, who really inspires you?
KS: I used to like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters a lot, but now obviously Serena (Williams). I think (Victoris) Azarenka and (Ana) Ivanovic, I used to like, and she’s doing well now too.
AM: Have you had the chance to chat to any of them?
KS: Well when I was eight I remember, at the US Open, I asked for Ivanovic’s autograph. And I think she lost her match in qualifying so she actually didn’t sign for me. But still, I looked up to her. That was just my first experience with her (laughs). Actually, also (Caroline) Wozniacki. My dad’s from Denmark too so he sponsored her a few years back and I met with her at the US Open two years ago. We talked and she’s really nice. We didn’t really chat about tennis though really. It was more just like what she does in her spare time and life in Denmark.
AM: Do you have any lucky charms you take with you on the tennis court when you’re playing?
KS: Umm, no, but I’m kind of superstitious. If I do a certain thing one day and I win, I’ll do it again the next day. Like putting my racquets in a certain place in my bag. And I use the same ball after I win a good point. I do that too.
AM: Not as excessive as Nadal though?
KS: No, not like that (laughs).
AM: What aspects of your game do you hope to improve on this year?
KS: I think just continuing to play aggressive and coming forward, especially in doubles. And volleying, developing a bigger serve and a bigger forehand. Also, fitness. I think in terms of speed and explosion. I think I’ll focus on that. And also mental – staying focused and staying positive.
AM: Do you prefer singles or doubles?
KS: It’s tough. I mean, I enjoy both. Doubles is a little bit more fun I guess. Maybe there’s not as much pressure because it’s a little bit more fun. But I enjoy singles a lot too. So both.
AM: What are your short-term goals for this year?
KS: Hopefully to play the main draw of Junior Grand Slams and do well. I like red clay a lot so maybe even to win the French Open, that would be really nice.
AM: What is it about that surface you prefer?
KS: I don’t know, maybe the sliding. It feels good. I enjoy that.
AM: What’s the funniest moment you’ve ever had on a tennis court?
KS: Well last year at the US Open, I was going into Arthur Ashe stadium and Tsonga was coming out. He was holding the door open for me and my friend and then he followed us down the steps but he actually tripped and fell (laughs). But it was really funny. He didn’t hurt himself or anything but the way he reacted, he was just laughing and smiling, and we were all just like ‘are you okay?’ That was a funny moment but I guess that’s not really on the court though. I’ve had so many funny falls, I guess, or bouncing the ball when I’m about to serve and it hits my foot and rolls away. That’s always good.
AM: How much does tennis mean to you?
KS: It means a lot. It’s my favorite thing to do pretty much. I’ve done it for almost my whole life and I can’t picture life without it.
AM: Thank you so much for your time, Katrine. Best of luck with it all!
KS: Thank you. Nice to meet you.
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website.