Jubilation as Maria goes home. Now for the hard work

Having guided her to the top, <i>Nick Bollettieri </i> expects to make the talk of tennis even better
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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova's homecoming to Bradenton, Florida, on Thursday, was symbolic and instructive, an indication of what Maria, her parents, her advisers at IMG, and indeed all of us at Bollettieri academy, strive to achieve.

Maria Sharapova's homecoming to Bradenton, Florida, on Thursday, was symbolic and instructive, an indication of what Maria, her parents, her advisers at IMG, and indeed all of us at Bollettieri academy, strive to achieve.

My staff hung a celebratory banner for Maria over the court where I tutored her over the years. Many of our academy students - from little kids upwards, who were served strawberries and cream last Saturday as they watched Maria win on TV - gathered to welcome her back, to congratulate her, to be inspired by her.

Maria, as always, acknowledged everyone's support.

In the evening, there was a dinner, at a place called Portofino's in town, where Maria was accompanied by her mother and coaches and friends from the academy, where Maria grew up.

Jubilant, yes, but it was a calm, private homecoming, a world away from the glare of attention and Sharapova-mania that has been sweeping the US.

And that's a good thing. Someone who wants to be a true champion cannot let distractions interfere. The people around that person must limit intrusions, like the uninvited photographers crawling around the academy this week before they found themselves evicted.

When I was young, stars were things you wished upon at night. I turned 17, the same age as Maria is now, in 1948. Sure, there were famous people in sports and in movies, but "stars" weren't truly born until there were televisions in most homes. Only then could we all share in the excitement of watching real people do unreal things.

Unreal things like Maria stepping out on Wimbledon's Centre Court a week ago today and defeating Serena Williams to lift her first Grand Slam.

At the moment of victory, Maria transformed from being a 17-year-old girl with a reservoir of promise into the brightest new star in the sporting universe.

For most of my life I have watched stars burn amazingly bright then fizzle to nothing. I have watched others streak across our lives and make our hearts skip a beat, only to land on some distant shore and fade to faint memory.

A special few find a way to keep their stardom, and I believe Maria Sharapova will continue to burn bright.

Why? Because she has the natural talent. Because she has a true desire to be world No 1. Because she's mentally tough, and knows, in the face of all the distractions, that the hard, hard work is still ahead. And because when, in the past two days, she returned home to Bradenton, where she lives close to the academy, she was already looking ahead to her next goal, not over her shoulder at what's done.

I predict Maria will be a shining star that dazzles us for many years, as I told her when we spoke. Maria knows my philosophy: in order to create a true star you must address the whole person, including but certainly not limited to, their physical make-up, parents, coping skills, external support system, level of self-esteem, motivation and discipline.

Getting technical, this is my reading of where Maria's game needs to develop. The foundation is there, but she's still growing and various areas will continue to develop, especially power as she gains more lower-body strength. Maria's groundstrokes and techniques are set. Her grips and swings are good. Her serve is coming along nicely, she has good volleying technique.

One area that needs work, when Maria returns to slower hard courts or clay, is more rotation on the ball. At the moment she hits with very little or no spin. On clay, for example, when the balls are often damp, they fly with all the velocity of watermelons. That factor, combined with Maria's flat, no-spin strokes, makes the ball much more recoverable. Add spin and you're causing problems again.

The most crucial change needed in Maria's game, I believe, will be strategy. She controls the court by hitting the ball so flat and hard. Defensive balls are an opponent's main option. The more people who know and read Maria's aggressive game, the more defensive balls will come.

Some opponents, powerful players such as Amélie Mauresmo, for example, will play one sound defensive stroke after another. If Maria is met with consistent defensive returns, the chances are that she will start over-hitting.

The change I will advise is that Maria becomes a more attacking player. By a full 50 per cent. There is a big difference between offensive, power-based play, which is how Maria plays at the moment, and attacking play, by which I mean coming forward.

Coming forward 50 per cent more often will not only add to Maria's game, but also terrify her opponents. Sure, her opponents worry about playing her even now. Her game is big and offensive. But opponents can acclimatise to that. But if they know she's not only going to play big and offensive, but is also prone to coming in at them at any moment, they'll be pooping themselves.

A week in the life of a superstar

Saturday 3 July Causes one of the biggest shocks in Wimbledon history by beating Serena Williams to become women's champion.

Sunday 4 Dances with the men's champion Roger Federer at the Wimbledon Champions' Ball at the Savoy Hotel in London.

Monday 5 Flies back to New York to meet her mother.

Tuesday 6 Appears on two American daytime television shows - NBC's The Today Show and ABC's Live with Regis and Kelly. Goes to New Haven to teach children at the Pilot Pen Tennis Street Clinic.

Wednesday 7 Appears on CBS's Early Show, then plays table tennis on MTV's TRL show.

Thursday 8 Returns to Bollettieri HQ at Bradenton.

Friday 9 Discussions are under way for an appearance next week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

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