Queensland Firebirds netball player Gretel Tippett.
Queensland Firebirds netball player Gretel Tippett. Jerad Williams

Young netballer is shooting for the stars

Gretel Tippett is surely blessed with that rare, magical athletic gene. At 192 centimetres (6' 3” on the old scale), she looks as though she could scale a rock face, hurl a javelin, dash a mean sprint or pull out a stunning triple jump without quite knowing how to do one.

She comes from athletic stock. Her two older brothers played top-level AFL - Kurt for the Adelaide Crows and Sydney Swans and Joel for North Melbourne. Now it's Gretel's star that's on the rise.

The 24-year-old is a Super Netball league standout, famous in netball circles for her unorthodox on-court style including her signature shooting move, the lay-up netball shot, co-opted from her early days as an elite junior basketballer.

Respected Australian netball commentator Sue Gaudion is a huge fan.

"She's the most exciting player in the game at the moment,” Sue says. "I love what she brings. There's no one else like her and I say the more of Gretel, the better.”

Gretel burst onto the elite netball scene in 2013, making Australia's Under 21 team and the national five-a-side Fast5 senior team in just her second year in the sport.

She's been in the mix of the Australian playing group ever since, still working on taming her freestyle basketball instincts to suit the demands of netball's more staccato style of play. That Gretel found herself even playing netball is a story in itself.

"I played a bit of netball when I was six and seven but I'd always played basketball because my brothers did,” she says.

"I idolised Kurt and Joel and I just wanted to do what they did.”

Indeed, Kurt was a talented state Under 18s basketballer and only started playing Australian rules at 18. Gretel too was playing top-level basketball by age 17 after being scouted by the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra to play in the Women's NBL.

Although she shone on the court, she struggled behind the scenes, trying to juggle her final year school studies and homesickness.

"It was full on,” she says. "I was training and playing and still trying to get high enough grades to get me into university.”

Her stellar basketball career included representing Australia at three junior World Championships and, in 2011, she was named the WNBL's Rookie of the Year but something had to give. Gretel came down with glandular fever and was forced to take a break.

In 2012, she was back on the Gold Coast studying a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Griffith University, a degree she's still completing.

But after four months of resting, the lure of team sport was drawing her back.

"I started playing netball with a friend,” she says. "I just missed playing sport and I didn't have the energy or the drive at that time to go back to basketball. I thought netball would be a bit of fun and a way to keep fit.”

Gretel played in the local comp and even tried out for the district representative trials, funnily enough not making the team. But word had got out. The very next day, Gretel received a call from the local state league team, the Gold Coast Jaguars, asking her to play with them.

"I told them I didn't make the district team,” she says. "But they told me to come along anyway.”

What netball coach worth a free pass wouldn't want a 6'3” Australian representative somewhere in the ranks, even if their netball skills were something of a wildcard?

Gretel credits Jags coach Paula Stuart with launching her netball career.

"She really put me under her wing,” Gretel says. "I had to learn the rules from scratch. I'd lost a lot of fitness and strength. I remember they did physical testing on us and I didn't do so well.”

In one of her early games for the Jags, Gretel infamously threw 13 air balls during her shots at goal but no one could discount her pure athleticism and her sheer grit in wanting to be better.

"I just loved being part of a team again and the challenge of learning a whole new game,” Gretel says. "I loved watching netball on the TV and I just wanted to be better at it. That was my challenge for myself, to keep improving.”

After making the Australian team for the World Youth Championships in 2013, the inevitable contract with the big league followed. Gretel moved to Sydney to play with the Sydney Swifts in the then ANZ Championships.

"I was 20 and being away from home, I struggled again,” Gretel says. "If there's one thing I've learned about myself, it's that I just like home.”

The vulnerability seems at odds with Gretel's on-court persona, her trademark swinging blonde ponytail and bold playing style a surprising contrast to her genuine sweetness off it.

Gaudion dubs her the smiling assassin.

"I think Gretel gets that white line fever,” she says. "She assumes a new character when she's on court.

"I say this with the greatest admiration - she's like the smiley blonde bombshell but as soon as she's on court, watch out.”

Inevitably, home drew her back. She signed with the Queensland Firebirds in 2015 where she was paired in the shooting circle with Jamaican veteran Romelda Aiken - to devastating effect.

"It was a fast ride,” Gretel says. "I loved it. She gave me so much confidence. She really carried me that first season.”

That first season, the Firebirds won their first national title and Gretel was selected in the Australian Diamonds team for the Constellation Cup, the tightly contested tournament between then world netball powerhouses Australia and New Zealand.

"We'd planned a family holiday to Hawaii,” Gretel says. "It was all booked then I got the call-up for the Diamonds so we changed the trip to New Zealand.

"Everyone came, Mum, Dad, my grandmother, my brothers too. It meant a lot to me to have them all there.”

In a coaching masterstroke, Gretel was injected into the second game of the series out of position as wing attack when Australia was trailing midway through the third quarter. Her unorthodox style proved almost impossible for the Kiwis to defend, turning the game Australia's way. Her performance was lauded as "the best debut any Australian Diamond has ever had”.

Gretel has been a fixture in the Diamonds squad ever since. Her maverick playing style has won her a legion of fans although it hasn't been without some sniping from the sidelines.

"Some of the netball traditionalists can't cope with seeing someone from outside come in and dazzle like that,” Gaudion says.

"But they're part of the old system and they're on their way out. Gretel is a rare outsider in netball, a cross-coder and we don't get many of those. I love her. She's playing within the rules and she's a standout in our sport. That's great for the game.”

Gretel says she would love to get a starting spot in the Diamonds one day. "But I've got a lot of things to work on, a lot of improving to do.”

Can Gretel Tippett, the freakishly talented basketball interloper, really be content to just keep improving?

"All I can do is perform well and put my best foot forward.”

You almost believe her, that sweet blonde assassin.