SOCHI, Russia, July 22 (Reuters) -- Sergei Lukashin, director of a tennis school by the Black Sea, has a dream.
He hopes the school, which produced Russia's greatest tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov and now bears his name, will one day rival the famous Nick Bollettieri academy in the United States.
The school is where Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova had her first lessons before moving to Bradenton, Florida, 10 years ago to train with Bollettieri.
"If we had adequate facilities and infrastructure we could compete with Bollettieri," Lukashin told Reuters.
"They bring young players from all over the world, hoping to find future stars. We don't have to look elsewhere in search of tennis prodigies, there are so many talented kids in our city that we can literally pick them off from the street and turn into champions."
Lukashin says Sochi is a perfect place for tennis and at first glance the seaside resort does look like a tennis paradise.
Almost everywhere, young and old are playing tennis in private clubs or simply hitting against a wall in public parks.
But Sochi's main problem is the lack of indoor courts.
"Some think you can play tennis year round here but it's the biggest misconception about Sochi," said Sharapova's first coach Yuri Yudkin, 67, who now teaches her younger cousin Dasha.
"From mid-November to mid-March, when the rest of Russia is covered with snow we have rain."
Lukashin's school -- the oldest of four youth tennis centres in Sochi which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year -- has only two usable clay courts. Two others are closed for renovation.
In comparison, the Bollettieri complex covers nearly 200 acres and has 70 tennis courts in addition to golf, baseball, basketball and soccer academies. Its graduates include former world number one Andre Agassi.
"We're a municipal school, thus totally dependent on the city's budget," said Lukashin, whose office is located in a dilapidated, four-story building, put up during the Stalin era.
The building has been turned into a hotel but more resembles a Soviet-style hostel, with paint peeling off the walls and ceiling.
"The other problem is that we have to rent everything," he said. "I figured that with all the money we've spent on rent in those 40 years we could've built our own place a long time ago."
Lukashin is now looking for investors to help build the tennis complex for his school, equipped with classes, storage rooms and a dormitory for students.
"We need about $1 million. The money must come from the private sector, either foreign or domestic because the city just doesn't have it," he said. "Those who decide to invest now could strike a gold mine in the future."
City officials have even tried to persuade the semi-retired Kafelnikov to put some of his own money into the project, but Sochi's most famous son has shown little interest.
Although he has a big house in the hills, the former French and Australian Open champion is now a rare guest in Sochi, preferring to spend his time in Moscow or Monte Carlo.
"As I recall, only once Yevgeny sent us some 25-30 tennis rackets," said Lukashin, who has a poster of Kafelnikov on the wall of his small office.
The school has some 250 students, aged seven to 17, and 17 coaches, who are paid between 5,000 and 6,000 roubles ($170-200) monthly salary and receive performance bonuses.
"Coaches also get free tennis kit and shoes," Lukashin said.
Basic training is free but if parents want additional lessons for their children they have to pay. For those with smaller pockets there are free asphalt courts.
Dasha Sharapova's parents, of course, have no such problem.
They can afford to rent courts at Sochi's Central stadium, where their nine-year-old phenomenon trains twice a day, six days per week under the watchful eye of Yudkin.
But security is a big concern in the region.
Asked why he was reluctant to give interviews, Alexander Sharapov, Dasha's father, said: "Do you know Kakha Kaladze, the Georgian football player?"
He was referring to the AC Milan winger, whose younger brother Levan was kidnapped in broad daylight in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi several years ago.
"Do you know what happened to his brother? In Abkhazia, which is less than 40 km from here, they can do that for less than 500 roubles ($17), no problem, just like that," Sharapov said, snapping his fingers.
The kidnappers demanded a $600,000 ransom for Kaladze's brother but he has yet to be found.
Lukashin, however, preferred to dwell on the positive side of Sochi.
"We have the sea, the sun and fresh air, but children are our most precious resource," he said, pointing to a group of seven-year-olds taking their first lessons nearby. "Give us time and we'll have new Kafelnikovs, Sharapovas and many more."
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