Video: From Russia with love, Sofiya Khalyaeva’s a tennis star in the making
It started with a chance meeting when a starstruck youngster and her mother stumbled across one of their heroes at Ipswich Sports Club.
Minutes later, and after Elena Baltacha had signed an autograph for little Sofiya Khalyaeva and her mother, Olga, Baltacha’s coach Nino Severino was on the way to discovering a star.
Russian-born Sofiya just happened to have her tennis racket with her and was offered the chance to knock a few balls around the court.
It only took a few shots for Severino to realise that he could have unearthed a star and two years on, the diminutive Sofiya is already creating a stir on the British circuit having been recognised by the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) and represented Great Britain under-10s.
“Myself and Bally (Baltacha) were working on court when Olga and Sofiya came across to ask for an autograph,” said Severino.
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“We had a quick look at her and immediately thought, wow, this girl is a little bit special!
“Bally did not mind if I took her on and she agreed with me that she had a chance.
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“From then it was all a case of developing the right programme for her. We met by accident but I believe it was fate.”
The 10-year-old cuts a slight figure on court but certainly packs a punch with a racket in her hand.
The Rose Hill School pupil is dedicated too, training between 17-19 hours a week and travelling to training on her bike with her mother from their Martlesham home - a two-hour round trip.
“Without going into detail, things are not easy for Sofiya and her parents, she has not transport and has to bike to training with her mum from Martlesham,” said Severino.
“Everything in her family’s life is about supporting her and she has that tunnel vision and that absolute 100 per cent commitment, that players from deprived countries, such as Russia, Croatia and Ukraine tend to have.
“Winning is everything and they have to fight for everything. They don’t receive any funding and their parents put everything on the line for them. It is not a case of wanting to win, they have to win to pay the bills.
“She already has that emotional toughness which will be important when she is older.”
While Sofiya clearly has talent, Severino is conscious of burn-out and has therefore tailored a programme which balances work and rest efficiently.
The former karate champion sees a future for his young star but does not want her following the same path that Baltacha took as a young player.
“We are treating her like a mini professional, including Olympic lifting, but to do that we must take care of her preparation and take care of her off the court too,” said Severino.
“There is a lot of recovery work involved, getting all the debris out of her muscles and we make sure she has regular massages as well as also looking after her nutrition.
“You can’t expect to put a young girl through that if you don’t look after her. If you don’t do that, then you will get a player like Bally who was not looked after properly physically as a young girl. We have worked tirelessly with her and she has been in the top-50 in the world now for the last two years.
“Sofiya is looking good. She already has the heavy ground strokes, her movement is good and her serve is really developing well. She has a god-given talent and that is not something you can teach.”
BRAMMER V KHALYAEVA
THE sun was in my eyes. There, I’ll get the excuse out straight away before a testing 20 minutes with this 10-year-old.
If only that was my only excuse. After little or no preparation – I don’t think two cheese sandwiches and a glass of cordial are among Sofiya’s dietary requirements – I took to the courts at the back of Ipswich tennis club to have a knock-up with the diminutive Russian, who now lives in Martlesham.
Shaking hands with Sofiya I was greeted with a wide smile from a little girl who, while perhaps a little bemused at the attention she was getting, was more than ready to give me a pasting.
Coach Nino told her to play a few underhand serve points with me and after her first couple of strokes, I could see I was facing a pocket rocket.
The power is nearly there and with a bit more conditioning she will be a real handful. However, it was her unerring accuracy that caught me out.
She never fluffed a first serve and planted a number of forehand returns just low and wide enough so they were out of the reach of a cumbersome, slightly unfit 30-year-old.
I have played before and I did win some points with the odd return here and there that spun over the net, although that was probably more to do with me catching the ball on the frame!
But overall, Sofiya gave me the runaround with her superior fitness, technique and ability to place the ball on a postage stamp.
And she is competitive too. In a game that was the first to 10 points, she was quick to correct Nino when he got the score wrong, pointing out she was in fact leading 7-2 and not 5-2!