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Old Jun 20th, 2005, 06:42 PM   #155
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Man who put the work into Sharapova

Maria Sharapova's coach, Robert Lansdorp, explains how hard work was the making of last year's Wimbledon champion

Eleanor Preston
Monday June 20, 2005
The Guardian


Watch Maria Sharapova hit ball after ball on Wimbledon's Aorangi Park practice court over the next fortnight and you might start getting dizzy, mesmerised as that yellow blur flies across court with metronomic consistency as if it were attached to her racket via an invisible elastic cord.


It may not be as glamorous as modelling a Stella McCartney dress, designing her own perfume or any of the other less onerous tasks Russia's most photographed export has been asked to perform since she won Wimbledon but the monotonous, repetitive thud of ball on strings is what made her a champion in the first place.

"There are a lot of things I need to improve on," says the 18-year-old. "I think physically I still have to get stronger. Tennis-wise there are a lot of little things I can improve that can make me a better and smarter player."

Sharapova's coach, Robert Lansdorp, began working with her when she was 11 and, as former pupils like Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport will testify, he is renowned for the work ethic he demands.

"Robert has made a big impact on my game definitely, because when I was 11 years old I wasn't the kind of person that wanted to practise and hit ball after ball," says Sharapova. "I wasn't consistent enough. When I came to Robert, he was like, 'OK, this girl has to hit ball after ball after ball until this basket is finished.' When I looked in the basket, there were about 1,000 balls in there. My eyes were pretty big when I saw that basket."

"The first time I saw her I spotted that she had an instinctive feel of where the court was but she had this horrible concentration and there were problems with her forehand," says Lansdorp. "She was not very good on hitting 100 balls forehand crosscourt in a row. Once I see that the ball is hit cleanly I will have the player repeat that over and over. And I'm very demanding about where the ball lands."

Lansdorp admits that the young Sharapova sometimes objected to the stringent routines her coach put her through in pursuit of success. It is hard to imagine many 11-year-olds meekly accepting a punishing schedule of an average of four hours a day spent walloping forehands in the muggy Florida summer heat.

"It's just a matter of making her do things that she never liked doing," shrugs Lansdorp. "Now she loves doing it. Every single person that becomes great needs that discipline."

There were plenty of things about Sharapova that Lansdorp concedes he cannot take credit for, not least her innate competitiveness, a fighting spirit which was just as evident when she was a lanky 14-year-old playing in the juniors as it was when she was beating Serena Williams so mercilessly in last year's Wimbledon final.

"When you see Maria off the court, she is easy going but, when she practises, she is intense and then, when she plays her match, she becomes, like, real feisty," says Lansdorp. "When she was 13, I went to watch her play the first pro tournament in Sarasota, in Florida. She lost in three sets and she was crying afterwards and I told her then, 'You don't have a thing to worry about because you're going to be great.' She wasn't good enough then because her shots weren't accurate enough but she had no fear of hitting the ball. Every great champion, they have that when they walk on the court: they have no fear."

Martina Hingis put it more succinctly. "She's as mean as a snake. She reminds me of me." Sharapova laughs but accepts the compliment. "I hope she's right," she says. "I've always been a big competitor and I've always been really mentally tough and I guess that comes with it. You want to win everything you play. I'm like that about everything. If I'm eating a bowl of pasta, then I've got to be doing it faster than anyone else. I'm always, always competitive." And with that she is off, back to the practice court for more hard graft. "In order to be the best you have to dedicate yourself to what you're doing," she says. "I've been willing to do that. Was it worth it? Oh yeah."
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