There’s no shortage of inspiration for Alycia Parks when she takes to the court as the No.1 seed in the Australian Open women’s qualifying on Tuesday.
Last week, the highly touted American celebrated her 22nd birthday with United Cup team-mates in Sydney and proudly watched on as Team USA went on to claim the inaugural title.
And if that’s not enough to buoy Parks as she targets a place in the AO 2023 main draw, Parks need only look at the superstar idols to whom she is so often compared.
“Definitely Venus and Serena but mostly Serena,” said Parks when asked to name who most inspired her as a younger player before explaining, almost wondrously, that she was in fact unfamiliar with the legendary sisters when she first experienced the sport.
“I think it's so weird how they compare us, because when I started tennis, I didn't really know who Venus and Serena were,” she said.
The situation is perhaps understandable when you learn that if not for some outstanding grades as a young student, Parks and her older sister Mikayla are unlikely to have discovered tennis at all.
“I got started in tennis by making all A’s in Elementary School. Me and my sister. And my mom took us to the toy store. And my sister picked something out, but I was taking forever in the store,” Parks related.
“My mom was like ‘you need to pick something on leaving the store’, so she happened to look down and see two racquets and three tennis balls and said ‘here’.”
The talent was immediately obvious when seven-year-old Alycia and Mikayla (who is 17 months older) started rallying on a neighbourhood court in their home city of Atlanta.
“My mom told my dad, ‘I think they’re pretty good’,” said Parks, who often travels with mother, Erica, and has been coached for many years by her father Michael, a former pro basketballer.
Talented American siblings forging a path as young players drew obvious parallels to the Williams sisters, with Alycia even once doubling for Serena in a Gatorade commercial.
And the big-hitting Parks, the younger sister like Serena, also boasts a similarly huge serve as her main weapon.
“It just so happened that I'm an aggressive player and I take pride in my serve,” she said.
At the same time, Parks is proudly forging her own path in professional tennis and arrives in Melbourne after making some massive gains last year.
As a qualifier in Ostrava last October, she defeated world No.19 Karolina Pliskova and the top-10 ranked Maria Sakkari to reach a first WTA singles quarterfinal. Adding to her breakthrough on those indoor courts in Austria, Parks lifted a first WTA doubles trophy with Caty McNally.
“I almost didn't make it to the tournament,” Parks laughed of that memorable week, explaining she was minutes from missing her flight to Europe. “I was mad and I'm like, ‘I can't do this, I'm going home’ and then I just remember saying, ‘okay, no, Alycia, just go play the tournament’.”
There was a similar mindset as Parks made another important graduation weeks later. With a goal of cracking the world’s top 100 not quite achieved, the American set to work at a series of WTA 125 tournaments at the end of the year.
She was rewarded with titles in Andorra and France, describing those victories as her proudest moments yet on a court. “I just happened to play free and won two tournaments,” she smiled.
While the rankings breakthrough wasn’t quite soon enough to ensure AO 2023 main draw entry (with the entry deadline falling just beforehand), you sense that Parks will draw on important lessons in the next week.
“I always use the saying 'me versus me' because I don't know how to explain it (but) I wouldn't say players were like beating me,” she reflected of the improvements she made last season. “I was more like, beating myself on the court and I knew the next year. I didn't want to be in the quallies of the Grand Slams.”
It sounds an ominous warning for Parks’ opponents in Melbourne, including Australian wildcard Alexandra Bozovic in the first round.
So too do the lofty ambitions that Parks has targeted this season.
“The next short goal is 50, because I'm 75,” Parks commented in Sydney. “But I definitely see myself as top 10 this year.”