One of the curiosities in the tennis game of Maria Sharapova is for her, on a rare occasion, to hit shots left-handed. Where did this come from and how she hits the shot so well? Rick Macci, the renowned tennis coach – called “the coach of phenoms” by Bud Collins – provides a fascinating anecdote of how Maria Sharapova was almost a left-handed player in this excerpt in his book “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness From Yourself And Others” (available here for sale and download: http://www.amazon.com/Macci-Magic-Extracting-Greatness-Yourself/dp/1937559254/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395497939&sr=8-1&keywords=Macci+Magic)
The situation with Maria Sharapova was very interesting because of the success of Venus and Serena and how well they played right when they came on the tour. Venus with that open stance backhand set the world on fire by just playing a more athletic game and bringing a different style of play to women’s tennis.
Yuri Sharapova, Maria’s father, contacted me when he was at the IMG Academy and wanted me to take a look at his daughter, who, at the time, was 11 years old. I said, “Yeah, come on down and I’ll take a look.”
They came down and within 10 minutes I had no doubt whatsoever she was going to be a world-class player, even at 11, simply because of a few things that I could see. First off, her mom was pretty tall and her focus was amazing already! So I thought that would be a benefit to her serve. Her two-handed backhand was already timed and synchronized at 11. Technically, it looked like poetry in motion. I was really impressed with that. But believe it or not, her footwork around the ball, her little steps around the ball, was uncanny. The way she tried to get into position was really unique. I don’t see that part of it at a young age. But in general her movement was average.
Overall, I saw some good stuff, but what was out of control was her forehand. It was very flat, to say the least. It was probably one of the weaker forehands I’ve seen ever on a good player or potentially good player ever. Her swing was quite big and the elbow kept coming into the body. The racquet almost opened up, the point of contact would shift on a regular basis. It was very, very problematic. I’m talking every fifth or sixth ball, she’d make an error or the ball would fly out. She couldn’t grab the ball. Just the whole mechanics of the swing was incorrect. It was an issue, a major issue. Her dad, whom I have a lot of respect for, felt he wasn’t getting the attention at IMG Academy to the point where he’d get a hitting partner and go across the street to the high school courts. When Maria was 9 or 10, even though there was a lot of potential, she wasn’t the flavor of the month. Even though people knew she had potential and she had good looks and there could be some marketing opportunities there, he wanted more. He wanted filet mignon. He wanted in-depth technical help, and he wanted someone to really coach his daughter. He just felt she was just hitting balls.
After the first couple of times they visited — they’d come for a week at a time — we discussed in every possible detail the possibility of switching her to play left-handed. Yes, left-handed! Yuri really wanted her to switch and be a lefty player. He thought it wasn’t too late because she was 11. I have the video tape to prove it. We came to the conclusion that she was going to play left-handed. I said, “Yuri, this is a big jump. I know it could be unique, I know her serve might be a little more of an advantage,” so on and so forth. And the reason why he wanted her to play left-handed and switch was because when she swung the racquet with her left hand it was once again poetry in motion. She hit the ball better, obviously not as hard. Her contact point always was in front and there were no hitches. She was very smooth, very compact when she hit lefty forehands.
He said, “Rick, I don’t care. Let’s go for it. I only care how good she is at 18, junior tennis doesn’t mean anything. She has to get a forehand or it’s going to be a roadblock.” He was looking at the right picture because she already had good footwork around the ball and was going to be a great competitor. She was wired to compete and focus. I could see that already she had a great determined attitude to achieve. She wasn’t fast and she wasn’t too agile, but she was going to be able to hit the ball hard and pretty flat, so she could probably hide her lack of overall agility. He just knew technically if she could get better on the forehand things could be world class.
So here we are practicing, he’s sending me tape when he goes back to the IMG Academy. I’m looking at tape, analyzing it of her hitting lefty forehands. Yuri is out there coaching her in Russian with the hitting partner. It’s getting better and better. They come down for the next visit for a week, a month, and this went on for almost a year and she’s getting a lot better.
Then I tell him, “Listen, I don’t think she should play left-handed because when I feed balls to her backhand, which is now a left-handed backhand, her backhand now looked very uncomfortable. Her backhand looked problematic. She was scrunched and cramped up when she hit the ball. Her point of contact wasn’t natural. So it’s almost like we’ve got the same scenario but on the other side of the body!
But it was a little more forgiving because she had two hands and she could improvise. I told him that was more of a strength thing. So we went back and forth on this issue. He really wanted her to play left-handed to the point where he called her agent. And he thought we were 100 percent crazy, and at the time they didn’t want this to happen. And I really didn’t want to make it happen but Yuri was all in on making it happen.
I said, “We just do the best technical tweaks on this stroke. It’s never going to be probably amazing but we can fill the holes and make it somewhat of a solid stroke. I don’t think it’s ever going to be something special but I think I can get it out of the liability phase.” She just hit so many balls the wrong way. It was just bad flat out muscle memory.
When IMG knew that she might switch left-handed and that on a regular basis she was coming down to Rick Macci Academy, Yuri told them that they wanted to leave IMG Academy and do a deal with us. IMG didn’t want him to move to the RMTA academy, but still Yuri wanted to work a deal out with me where it was all based on free coaching, free hitting partner, free fitness, and the upside would have been percentages and bonuses to the point of about $1 million if she made it big. I knew she could be a great player and I saw the endorsement possibilities because she was a cute little kid. You could see she had Madison Avenue written all over her. You get anywhere near the top 10 it’s a good investment and a no brainer! Plus Maria was a great, super sweet kid. Her forehand scared me a little because I didn’t want it breaking down every fourth shot. I saw Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario get to No. 1 in the world with a very, very bad forehand. So I thought Maria with her size and strength probably could hide it easier. When IMG got wind that she might play left-handed and that she might leave IMG, within 24 hours they flew down to the RMTA. Yuri said that was more attention than she got in the last two years. Even though they were still going to represent her, it was a little disturbing because at the end of the day they probably didn’t want what was really best for Maria but was best for them. Maybe because of publicity they wanted the whole pie because they own their own academy. But Yuri wanted a slice of it with Rick Macci and RMTA.
Yuri wanted to leave. Maria wanted to leave because they had personal world-class coaching and attention to detail, and it was more of a family environment. One thing led to another, the weekend passed and everything seemed great. Yuri said, “We’re going to go back and we’re going to pack everything and we’ll be back the following week, and we’re moving her permanently and we’re going to do the deal. We’ll work all the details out with the people at IMG.”
After they left the condo they were staying at, the housekeeper found a letter from Maria that she wrote to God saying she couldn’t wait to move. She wrote that she loved it here and wanted to leave where she was and it was exciting. It was really interesting that an 11-year-old girl would write a letter like that. There was a bond that was created from start to finish and obviously a mega deal to be done. It might be five, six, seven years down the road. Other than what I saw in the Williams sisters, I knew there was a lot there tennis-wise and marketing-wise because she had the looks and would have the game! Most of all the wiring and focus was special. I could help extract even more greatness.
A week passed and I kind of felt uneasy because I knew once they went back to the other side of the fence there was going to be a full-court press in for them not to leave. The moral of the story: Yuri calls me up and says, “We can’t leave. IMG doesn’t want me to leave. If I leave I might not get wild cards in the future, I don’t want to get blackballed. They’re giving me more money to stay. They guaranteed I’d get better matches. They’re guaranteeing I’m getting better hitting partners.” It was the whole song and dance.
I just said, “No problem. Anything you need.”
He said, “They don’t want me to come here.”
I said, “Listen, I love your daughter. She’s a great, great kid. You and your wife just understand it’s a journey and a long-term process and you have the thoroughbred to make it. Here’s what I recommend… you’ve got to get technical help. If they’re not going to let you come here because I have an academy and they don’t want, for whatever reason, the publicity, even though the coaching she needs right now is technical, I would make them pay for her to have technical help on the forehand. And if you want I’ll give you the phone number.”
Which I did. I said, “There’s a guy in California named Robert Lansdorp, I would call him. He can teach your daughter how to hit the ball cleaner and he can probably connect the dots better than probably anybody in the country. He’s not going to make it perfect because I think there’s too much damage done. But 24/7, she needs a forehand.”
The moral of the story: She goes back, she stays there, whips out to California now and then, IMG picks up the tab because Robert doesn’t have an academy and she just gets technical help. IMG Academy still gets the credit. They still represent her and that’s how that whole thing played out. That’s a story that’s never really been told because I have so many stories like this, not of people who went on to become megasuper stars like Maria, who have won all four major tournament titles and finished in the Top 10 seven times, but it’s just so common because of what I’ve done. This is really the first time I’ve said anything about this situation because we’re putting it in a book. I don’t even talk about it because it’s really no big deal. But I guess it could have been a big deal.
“Macci Magic” is the entertaining and inspirational manual and memoir that helps pave the way to great achievement not only in tennis, but in business and in life. Macci, known as the coach of five world No. 1 players – Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova – shares his secrets to success both on and off the tennis court through anecdotes and more than 100 of his famous “Macci-ism” sayings that exemplify his teaching philosophy and illustrate the core role and power of positive thinking in the molding of a champion.