Russian teenage sensation Maria Sharapova has all the ingredients to become a Wimbledon champion, according to coaching guru Nick Bollettieri.
The 17-year-old from Siberia, who reached the fourth round a year ago as a virtual unknown, is 13th seed this year after soaring up the world rankings in the last 18 months.
She won her first grass-court title in Birmingham last weekend and, according to Bollettieri, is set to “turn those strawberries green”.
Sharapova grew up at the famous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida which helped produce the likes of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Boris Becker, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.
“I always knew Maria had talent,” said Bollettieri, who has been churning out the stars in Bradenton since 1978.
“She has terrific eye and hand co-ordination but what made her so different was her discipline. With Maria, everything was pure business.
“She’s meaner than a snake and she’ll make those strawberries turn green.”
Sharapova, spotted at the age of six by Martina Navratilova during an exhibition match in Moscow, was separated from her mother for two years while she set out to be a tennis champion.
Living in a dormitory for a year was a harsh, Cinderella-like existence that toughened her up for the trials ahead.
“I was nine and stayed with other girls who were 17 and I always got picked on,” she recalled. “I would go to bed at eight o’clock and they would wake me up when they got to bed at 11 and make me clean the room.”
But there was never any doubt that Cinderella would go to the ball. Sharapova turned professional on her 14th birthday and in her breakthrough season last year she equalled the best-ever performance by a female wild card at Wimbledon.
She was the youngest winner of a WTA singles title in 2003 when she triumphed in the Japan Open while still 16 and also won in Quebec City.
Sharapova was on course for the semi-finals of the French Open until she surprisingly lost to doubles specialist Paola Suarez but looked in ominous form on her favourite surface at Edgbaston, where she defeated another Bollettieri product, Tatiana Golovin, in the final.
“It was a little surprising not to see her go all the way in Paris,” admitted Bollettieri. “She had a chance to win the whole tournament.
“With grass, though, she likes it a little faster because she hits the ball so flat and drives the ball.
“She has also improved her serve and she’s not hesitant in coming to the net. Maria Sharapova has a very, very bright future.
“She has to capitalise on her opportunities which she didn’t do in the French Open. She has a tendency to start a little slow in matches but she mustn’t start slow at Wimbledon.”
Sharapova, who is accompanied by her father Yuri and American coach Robert Lansdorp, is still combining her tennis with her studies via the internet and, in-between tournaments, manages to pursue her interests in fashion, dancing and the movies.
She tries to get back to Russia twice a year to catch up with her wider family and occasionally wonders what life would have been like if she had stayed in her home country.
“I’d be having a great social life I guess,” she said. “Maybe I would be a fashion or interior designer. It would be a totally different lifestyle, that’s for sure.”
Bollettieri believes the sky is the limit for the naturally-gifted Sharapova, who next month could become the youngest Wimbledon champion since Martina Hingis.
“It was just a matter of time with Maria,” he added. “Her father is a strict disciplinarian and she’s got one of our best coaches and one of our best trainers with her.
“She’s got everything she needs. With her mentality and background, she’s going to do fairly well in every tournament.
“She’s just got to learn how to adapt to the conditions, which she didn’t do in France. She’s capable of beating anybody but she’s now one of seeds and other players want to beat a seeded player.”