Seems like an eternity ago, Sharapova holding the trophy way back in 2004
Maria’s father Yuri is not your average tennis parent. Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri once described him as the most difficult tennis parent he had ever had to deal with.
However, Yuri’s and his wife Yelena’s dedication and commitment to help their only child Maria succeed are probably unparalleled.
Maria was conceived in Gomel, Belarus in the shadow of the 1986 nuclear disaster of Chernobyl.
Whilst still in her mother’s womb, her parents decided to move from the region to prevent their unborn child being exposed to the cancers and radiation linked illnesses associated with nuclear fallout.
The only option available to them was to move to the frozen oilfields of western Siberia. There, in the bleak industrial town of Nyagan, 19 April 1987 Maria was born.
Yuri worked in the nearby Tyumen oil fields, in the most brutal of conditions, where temperatures plummeted to minus-40 degrees Celsius and clouds of toxic smoke hung overhead.
He earned extra money, as the conditions were so harsh.
Yuri seldom does interviews, preferring instead to keep the spotlight on his daughter. Maria once said, “I’m a tough girl.” And Bollettieri commented, “She’s so tough she could bend a steel nail.”
Sharapova with the 2006 US Open trophy
After four years working in this brutal environment Yuri had managed to save enough money to escape once again, and the family moved south to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Yuri, a recreational tennis player, was playing one day, when Maria who was four years old at the time, become bored with having to watch him. She suddenly picked up a racquet by the side of the court and started hitting a ball around.
A local veteran tennis coach, the late Yuri Yudkin (1936-2009), saw her doing this, and was so impressed by her precocity and natural hand-eye coordination that he offered to coach her.
Due to shortages in the former Soviet Union at this time, Maria learned to play with a racquet with a sawn-off handle. Eventually, Eugeny Kafelnikov, the father of world No. 1 Yevgeny, who was a friend of Maria’s father, gave her one of his son’s racquets.
Yudkin said of Maria, “I was amazed that aged four-and-a-half Maria was already intellectually mature. She absorbed everything I told or showed her, and was an exceptionally quick learner.
She was a very smart girl, I never had to repeat instructions twice to her and she could do a spin serve age seven. In the three years I worked with her she never once told me she was tired.”
By age six Maria was showing signs of extraordinary talent and was seen by Yudkin as a champion in the making. She went with her father and coach to take part in an exhibition in Moscow, which involved Martina Navratilova.
Martina spotted Maria hitting with older stronger girls, and told Yuri that his daughter was very talented, and that he should take her to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in the United States, where she would receive the best training and coaching available.
Yuri did not have the money to take her, and was forced the next year, to borrow $1,000 from Maria’s grandparents in order to make the trip, an amount of money that would take him many years to repay.
The famous Sharapova backhand
Having arrived unannounced at Bollettieri’s, seven-year-old Maria and her father were told that she was too young to be offered a scholarship and that they should come back when she was older.
Refusing to be deterred and despite speaking little English, Yuri found himself various jobs including dishwashing and working on construction sites to pay for Maria’s tennis.
During these times Maria hardly saw her father, as he often worked double shifts and would walk for over an hour to meet her at the academy at weekends. Yuri refers to this time as “a time of survival.”
Due to financial and visa restrictions, it was two years before Maria was able to see her mother again, and she was in a country far from home and in which she could not even speak the language properly.
She said of this time, “When I arrived in America I was young, but I already knew what I wanted. I think that when you start from nothing, when you come from nothing, it makes you hungry.”
Maria added, “My mother and father taught me not to cry. Coming from an area devastated by a nuclear disaster, I was brought up with the word 'perspective' drummed into me.
If I ever complained to my father he would just tell me to get some perspective!”
Spirit of a champion
LIFE AT THE BOLLETTIERI ACADEMY
Despite these incredibly difficult times, Maria continued to train and improve her tennis, and by the time she reached age nine, the International Management Group (IMG) who now owned the academy, were so impressed with her ability and potential, that they awarded her a full scholarship.
The family were finally reunited soon afterwards.
Again, even though she was now on a scholarship, life was far from easy for Maria. She was put in a dormitory with girls much older than herself, experienced being bullied and due to language problems, struggled to make friends.
She later commented, “I never had the experience of being around other kids every day, I was never in a normal school, but it’s hard to miss something when you’ve never really had it.”
Playing tennis against and beating these older girls, though, proved no such problem. By age 10 Maria was winning 14-and-under tournaments.
She said, “I’ve been playing against older and stronger competition my whole life. It has made me a better tennis player, and I’m able to play and win against this kind of level despite their strength and experience.”
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Maria struggled throughout her junior career with her forehand, and at age 10, due to the lack of attention Yuri believed Bollettieri was paying her, the Sharapovas began making weekly trips to see Rick Macci.
This created a clash of interests with IMG as Macci’s is an independently run academy. Macci suggested Yuri contact veteran coach Robert Lansdorp who was based in California.
Around that time Yuri had heard former world No. 1 Tracy Austin, commenting on TV about the exceptional groundshots of Lindsay Davenport. Austin, Davenport and Pete Sampras had all been taught in Los Angeles by Lansdorp, who is known for his work ethic and disciplined approach.
Sampras later said of him, “If any of my kids want to learn tennis, then Robert is the man I would send them to for groundshots—without question.”
Yuri decided he wanted Lansdorp to take a look at Maria. A two-hour session was arranged and the Sharapovas flew to Los Angeles to meet him. Lansdorp recalled of Maria and their first lesson together,
“Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the number of balls I had in my basket.”
After the session Yuri asked Lansdorp what he thought of his daughter. Lansdorp replied, “She hits the ball pretty well but her concentration sucks.” They stayed for two weeks!
Between ages 11 and 18, Maria split her time whilst not playing tournaments, either training with Lansdorp in California or at Bollettieri’s.
One of the problems Lansdorp and Yuri had with Maria and her game was that up until age 12 they didn’t know whether she should play left- or right-handed, as she could play equally well with either.
Lansdorp recommended she played right-handed, because he thought she had a more natural right-handed serve. Not usually known for his praise of pupils, Lansdorp said of Maria, “She is a special player and a special person.”
Lansdorp said that unlike Bollettieri, he never had a problem with Maria’s father, and that during her lessons Yuri would simply run around picking up balls.
From a girl to a woman
Maria first gained international recognition when in November 2000 age 13, she won the 16-and-under Eddie Herr championships in Florida.
Age 14 years and nine months in January 2002, she became the youngest girl ever to reach the final of the junior Australian Open.
In March 2002 she achieved her first world ranking of No. 535. and later that year was runner-up at junior Wimbledon. Age 15, she ended 2002 ranked world No.183.
In 2003 she began playing full-time on the WTA tour.
In June age 16, she entered the world’s Top 100, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and ended the year ranked No. 32.
From my book, “So you want to win Wimbledon? – How to turn the dream into reality”- available from Amazon
And here's Part 2