Russia's big draw puts Kournikova to shame

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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova, the talk of the town, is the hottest property and the biggest draw to come from Russia since Anna Kournikova. And Maria is succeeding where Anna failed for one reason. Anna's mother, Alla, never truly let go of the reins to put total faith in the coach. There were times she thought she knew better than experienced professionals how her daughter could become a Grand Slam winner. And Anna never reached a Slam final, let alone win one.

Maria Sharapova, the talk of the town, is the hottest property and the biggest draw to come from Russia since Anna Kournikova. And Maria is succeeding where Anna failed for one reason. Anna's mother, Alla, never truly let go of the reins to put total faith in the coach. There were times she thought she knew better than experienced professionals how her daughter could become a Grand Slam winner. And Anna never reached a Slam final, let alone win one.

The story with Maria, who yesterday reached her first Grand Slam final, aged 17, by beating Lindsay Davenport, is different. Her dad, Yuri, brought her to my academy in Florida from Russia when she was a little girl. He didn't know a whole lot about tennis but he's a smart, smart guy and he made it his business to watch, listen, investigate, learn. He made sure that he found the right people, knowledgeable people, who could help his daughter become the best tennis player possible.

Yuri has stayed right by her, giving her every support, protecting her like she was a Queen, but he let those people get on with their job. He learned from them and now he's part of the team - along with a coach, conditioner and agent from the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy - who are with her in London.

As someone who has been involved for long periods in the development of the careers of both girls, I know them well and I know their backgrounds. Anna arrived at my academy in Florida aged 10, in 1992 and stayed there as a student until 1997, the year she reached the Wimbledon semi-final.

The development of Maria's career has also been overseen at the academy. She's tough as nails, and she proved it yesterday by coming from a set down. She's a slow starter in matches, and I'd been concerned that a slow start against a fit Lindsday Davenport might see her overpowered. It didn't. I'm not overly surprised. She's so driven, so focussed on becoming the best tennis player in the world, that a Slam final was only a matter of time.

Tennis is what drives her. Forget the outside interests such as modelling work. She does some of that but I can tell you that compared to her tennis that's all bullshit to her. It's what she does on court that she cares about above everything.

You should see her go out to practice. She never stands around in the middle wasting time on warming up. She goes straight to the baseline and says: "Let's get this frickin' ball game started." She's a true competitor, and everyone who has ever practiced with her at the academy was a guinea pig to test her.

Now her battles are on big stages. She has a battle plan every time. It's like an aircraft carrier with two admirals. One is the head of operations - that's Yuri. One is head of battles on the front line - that's Maria. That scenario would never have been possible unless her father had placed his faith in the coaches. The result is a Wimbledon final. That's got some ring to it.

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