The journey that has taken Katie Malazonia from Tblisi to Paris has been long and not always especially comfortable yet it has brought the 12-year-old the chance of a lifetime.
Katie, from Handsworth, has been selected as the only UK representative to take part in the Longines Future Tennis Aces Competition at the world famous Roland Garros.
The tournament, which consists of 16 players chosen from around the world including tennis powerhouse nations like France, Spain and Russia, takes place at the French Open over the next three days.
And the St Paul’s School for Girls student could also win a sponsorship package until her 16th birthday as well as the chance to play in an exhibition match with the legendary Steffi Graf. All of which means today’s stroll on to the Parisian red clay will be one short-step for Katie but a giant leap for the Malazonia family.
But everyone who knows the talented tennis player says it is one she should take in her stride given the aplomb with which she has negotiated her emigration from her native Georgia.
Katie was just five when she came to the UK to join her parents, who were studying and working here, and faced her first day at St Augustine’s Catholic Primary unable to speak even a single word of English.
“Not even ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’,” recalls her mother Lela who, even before the afternoon was out was called to the school to take her daughter home.
“It was very scary,” Katie says. “I kept pointing at my ear and faking ear-ache. But I settled down in a couple of weeks.”
In a couple of years she had mastered her new language and was showing equally promising signs on the tennis court. Within a month of being reunited with her parents Katie was taken to the Edgbaston Priory Club where she instantly showed promise.
Sufficiently so that her first coach even told her parents that the eager five-year-old would become ‘a very, very good player’.
Quite how good no-one yet knows. Katie is currently ranked No. 4 for her age group in the UK but has been as high as No. 1 in the seasonal standings.
She reached the quarter-finals of the Winter Masters event at Roehampton at the end of last year, effectively the national championships and finished runner-up in her only other tournament abroad, in the French resort of La Baule. She goes into the Roland Garros event as curious as she is set on victory. “I am really looking forward to seeing how I compare against other girls my age.
“I have played tournaments at Under 16, Under 18 to get experience so this is another learning experience for me.”
While, without knowing the opposition, it is impossible to predict how successful she will be over the next couple of days, what is clear is that she will not be out-worked. Indeed her coach at Edgbaston Priory High Performance Centre Simon Dickson, himself a former top 500 player in the world, expects nothing less from his charge.
“Her main qualities are determination and hard work, she is such a committed tennis player, she puts her life into it,” Dickson says.
“I remember when she started with me three years ago, she was really keen and enthusiastic and loved to rally and get the ball in court.She has kept those qualities and added a bit more power and strength to her game.
“Her results in France aren’t particularly important in terms of a tennis career. It’s just to give the idea of where she is at and the experience of playing at Roland Garros and learning a bit more about what it’s like to be a professional player.
“We have been away to play an international tournament before, this one will be more difficult just by playing at Roland Garros which will be a massive deal and it’s how she copes with that.” And if there are any clues as to that, one only has to remember how she has already crossed continents, cultures and language barriers.
* Longines is the Official Partner and Timekeeper of the French Open at Roland-Garros www.longines.com