From a 9-year old Girl, to a Tennis Superstar: Maria Sharapova

By her former coach Gabe Jarimello. Taken from UK Tennis Magazine Edition #41

Maria came to our academy in Florida with her father, Yuri, when she was nine years old. The rest of her family stayed in her home country of Russia. At that early age, Maria already had the traits of a champion: strong walk, great work ethic, extreme discipline, hunger to learn, strong self esteem and very high goals. The family made a lot of sacrifices and it was hard for Maria to be away from her mother. They did not have very much money and Yuri worked very hard doing any kind of jobs just to survive.

On court Maria was a “little professional” and took her training very seriously.  During her first years in the USA, she worked in groups with girls her age who were also very talented.  Some of those girls she trained with were, Tatiana Golovin, Jellena Jankovic, Vera Zvonereva, Jemea Jackson and others. Her daily training consisted of: one and half hour of drilling, one and a half hour of match play, and one hour of conditioning. After working in a group setting, she received one hour of “special help”, which is what we call the free lessons that we give to the talented students.  

During these first years, Yuri worked very hard so he did not see his daughter during practices as much. After a while, he started working more nights and was able to spend more time observing her work-outs. Maria is ambidextrous and at the age of 11, Yuri decided that Maria was going to be a left-handed player. Maria began doing every thing left handed serves, groundstrokes, volleys, she practiced like this for about six months. At that time, the head coach of her group was Percy Melcy and he didn’t believe that Maria should be playing left handed. Ultimately, he was able to convince Yuri that Maria should be a right handed player and that all that time that they spent hitting left handed would help her with her two handed back-hand in the future. Yuri then agreed and Maria switched back to right handed play.

Flushing Meadows, NY, USA. 25th Aug, 2014. Maria Sharapova (RUS) in action against Maria Kirilenko (RUS) during Day 1 of the US

When Maria was eleven years old she was very small and skinny. She had no power in her strokes but she was very smart playing points and the toughest competitor I have ever seen in my life. She had the main ingredient of a champion in that she played with no fear and if she had the opening, she went for her shot even if she was match point down.

As Maria turned thirteen years old, she was showing great potential and thus, her workouts became more personalized. Around the same time, Yuri became even more involved with her tennis. He was very demanding of her, her opponents and her coaches, but he always managed to be polite and a gentleman. I had to meet with him before every practice to organize her day. We planed every detail: the time, the length of the practice, the surface, the court number, the coach, the hitting partner and the goals for that particular practice. Maria did a lot of repetition, most of her practices were based on live ball hitting. Yuri expected the sparing partners to be like machines and he would get very upset if they missed just one ball. The same expectations were true for Maria also she was not allowed to miss. Maria got very sturdy and little by little her ball speed improved tremendously.

Around this time, Yuri started taking her to California for two week trips to work on her strokes with Robert Landsdorf. Maria was very loyal to the academy so at the beginning it was hard for her, every time she came back from California we would ask her what she had worked on and she would not know what or how to answer.  I started calling Robert myself to find out what they had worked on so we could better coordinate her training. Maria felt more comfortable with the situation, but I still remember one of the first professional tournaments that Maria played. She was in Sarasota, Robert came from California to watch her play. He sat in one side of the court and we sat on the opposite side. Maria was very uncomfortable and did not look up to the stands during the entire match. She has always been very respectful to her team and did not want to upset anybody.

Yuri played a very important role in her development. The relationship between him and his daughter was very good and as the coaches, we could never have filled that “father figure” role. They had a strong bond which gave Maria a very secure environment and a structured setting. I worked very proactively with him and relied on his input, especially for her mental support. From the beginning, we had the same goal, which was for her to become number one in the world. We also had very good communication between us, Yuri was responsible for his daughters value system, and without those values we could not have done our job. I never saw Yuri on the court feeding a ball, he relied on us, the coaches, to get the results he expected. He took her to different coaches trying to maximize our expertise. Yuri understood the value of the team but he had to control it, most of the time he was on the sidelines talking to us. He expected 100% from the coaches, sparing partners and Maria. I also learned a lot from him especially the extensive preparation before practices, he did not accept any mistakes, the strokes had to be machine precise, he always treated her with respect, the practices were based on groundstrokes and the return of serves. Maria learned from her father how to fight and from her mother how to be elegant, sweet and compassionate.

Maria’s practice matches were very specific, 90% of the time, they were against boys.  She did not like to compete against other girls but more than anything she hated to loose against them. Her match practice partners had to hit a good quality ball, strong and very consistent, they also had to be fast and could not give up. If the boys did not play up to their potential they were not invited to train with her again.

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