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Martina Navratilova: Time for Sharapova to fulfil her destiny

Key that Sharapova stays focused on what is on court

Martina Navratilova
Saturday July 3, 2004
The Guardian

The first time I saw Maria Sharapova was in Moscow when she was five. She was just a blonde-haired kid but when you see talent like that you can't help but notice it.

I was playing an exhibition match and they gave a kid's clinic, and that's when I first saw that Maria had all the gifts needed to be a future star. She was being groomed for greatness similarly to Andre Agassi and Martina Hingis but she has had to come a long way to create an opportunity for herself to make the most of all that talent.

You can train 10 kids the same and only one will be No1. What I saw in Sharapova was not just in the way she played tennis. It was there in the way she moved, in the way she walked and the way she would kick a ball or pick it up and throw it. You cannot teach that fluidity or that ease of movement. It was there even in the way she walked. You think "wow, this kid's an athlete". Of course not everybody has the hand-eye co-ordination or the dexterity to go with the movement - they can run like the wind but they can't hit a ball to save themselves - but with her it definitely went together.

As soon as I saw her play a match a few years later, I realised that she had the potential to turn her talent into something. She was pumping her fist and saying "c'mon" after the first point, like Lleyton Hewitt. She was very intense from the get-go and you can't teach that. That kind of single-mindedness and concentration and focus is very hard to come by in someone that young. You can help it along and encourage it but it has to be inside from the start.

When she first started playing WTA Tour events I would see her in the locker room and she would ask me advice and her dad Yuri would ask me a few questions about tactics or problems. I had a better rapport and interaction with her than most of the younger players coming through.

But there is no comparison with me at 17 and Maria. I've always fought hard but I didn't have a clue what I was doing on court at that age. I would lose matches because I hit a bad shot or because there was a bird on the court or I got a line call against me. As a player I took a long time to develop mentally and emotionally, whereas at 17 Maria is the whole package - she's got the mental, the physical and the emotional bases covered.

Of course she has had to make some sacrifices but when you are going through it yourself you don't really see it like that. Looking back I made the same kind of sacrifices in my childhood and yet all I remember is doing exactly what I wanted to do, which was playing tennis. Maria has always done that, too, and while it's tough to be away from your parents for three years, like she was when she first went to Florida, it's no different from being sent to boarding school. Kids are very resilient as long as they are loving what they do. Nobody has to push you if you love tennis. No one ever had to push me and I'd bet they never had to push Maria either.

These days players are given far more support in their development, and that is probably a major difference between my era and hers. Maria signed up with her management group IMG when she was nine. I didn't have an agent until I won Wimbledon. Players are nurtured differently now as everybody sees the future possibilities and endorsements and the money that can be made. There are trainers, physios, psychologists and coaches for players like Maria to call on. I didn't start learning about the psychology of the game until my early 20s. It's a different era and they grow players better, younger. Maria has had the help, she's had the opportunity but she's the one who has made it happen.

She's a very poised, positive, friendly person off the court, and she always has a smile on her face, and that's very much the way she plays tennis. If she's losing, I get the feeling it's because she knows she's not playing the game as well as she can. That attitude is what makes you a winner and a lot of people outside tennis don't understand that. If you play your best and you try hard and you still lose the match then it's OK. She understands that. You can't tell the score by her demeanour - you would have no idea whether she is winning or losing by the look on her face. For the best players it's about how well you play the game, and Maria understands that.

The key in today's final is for Maria not to get too caught up in all the stuff that goes on around the match, which isn't easy when it's your first grand-slam final. Before my first Wimbledon final in 1978 I read that you need to be in a final [and lose] before you can win one, but I thought "bullshit, I'm so excited about being here I'm not going to be in a final before you can win one". I think Maria has that same attitude. She's been working so hard for so long that I don't think she will be overwhelmed.

It's very hard to block everything out because everybody wants to talk to you, everybody wants a piece of you and I'm sure she's had a lot of media requests over the last couple of days. I saw her on the phone yesterday and I said to her "talk to them later", because you can't get carried away with all the people that are around you and all the people that want to be around you.

I think of all the kids to get there Maria is probably best equipped to cope with all that, and I think she may be equipped to deal with Serena too, although it's going to be very, very tough. She needs to stay with Serena in the beginning, because when Serena gets on a roll she's a hard train to stop.

Maria has proved this grass-court season that she has got all the tools. She gets down low enough when she hits the ball, she obviously isn't bothered by the iffy bounces you get on this surface and she has a big serve, all of which will help her. She needs her serve to be a better weapon than Serena's, and that doesn't happen very often.

Stranger things have happened and I know Maria wants to win badly. That much was clear the first time I saw her.

5,728 Posts
Thanks a lot, Sharky!
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