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Ksenia Efremova was not yet three years old, and her mother already had a feeling that her daughter was destined to become a star.
One afternoon, when her older brother was practicing on the tennis court, Efremova took one of her rackets, as she used to do, and started hitting a basket of balls.
"She started throwing balls at herself," Julia Efremova, a former professional tennis player, told CNN.
"I looked at her and I was amazed because all the balls flew over the net and she did the movements perfectly. I told myself that this was the time to work with her because she had a lot of passion and I wanted it."
"It wasn't really my choice. She started her career that way."
At 12 years old, Efremova is considered one of the young promises of tennis and has already become something of a star, amassing more than 35,000 followers on Instagram and landing endorsement deals with Nike and Yonex.
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She currently trains at the prestigious Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France, founded in 1996 by Serena Williams' current coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
Ksenia Efremova with her mother and trainer, Julia Efremova.
The academy holds selection weeks throughout the year, where potential young stars arrive from around the world to showcase their talent and try to earn a spot.
"They come to test themselves physically, tennis-wise and, of course, mentally," explains Mouratoglou.
"We watch them practice. We also watch them compete and then we make the decision whether we want to help them or not."
"We can't help everyone, but we do our best to help those who we think have the best potential and our role is of course to find a way to help them realize their potential and be the best they can be in the world. future to get it.
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an amazing athlete
All players accepted into the academy have access to a coach, fitness trainer and medical team, providing them with an elite support system from the age of nine.
They also receive detailed reports on tournaments and competitive matches, where, according to Mouratoglou, "the stress of competition" is the best way to see which aspects of their game need further development.
Coco Gauff and Stefanos Tsitsipas are some of the current stars who have spent a significant part of their formative years at the prestigious academy.
Efremova traveled from Russia to the academy when she was nine years old, accompanied by her mother and coach, and Mouratoglou says she immediately saw that her potential was "enormous".
"Ksenia has incredible potential, I think she has the complete package," he says.
"She's an amazing athlete. If you look at her social media, you'll see her. She can do the full
, she can dance, she can do all kinds of things besides tennis."
Patrick Mouratoglou says Efremova has "incredible potential."
"She moves extremely well. She'll probably be tall because her mother is very tall. Her hitting is amazing. Her technique is extremely clean. She can catch the ball early. She's aggressive. She's a very good competitor. So if you look at her as a whole, it's great".
Julia believes that the fact that her daughter plays multiple sports has greatly contributed to her being such a well-rounded athlete at such a young age.
Not only has it provided her with a number of transferable physical skills, such as stamina and flexibility, that have improved her as a tennis player, but Julia also says it was crucial in ensuring that Efremova did not get bored from playing too much tennis.
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In fact, Julia says that her daughter's main sport growing up was gymnastics, often training three hours a day, compared to just one hour of tennis.
"I want to help parents around the world who have the dream of turning their children into professional tennis players, because when they are little and they are that age and that fire in their eyes, you can't kill it with hours of work on the tennis court. ", Explain.
"For example, Ksenia only played [tennis] three times a week when she was little and I didn't force her. I forced her in other ways, so she had dance classes, swimming classes, she had English classes, she also had
. It was everywhere."
Even at just 12 years old, Efremova is becoming a star.
"I want to become a legend"
Few kids will experience the kind of pressure and expectations that Efremova has already dealt with for years, but Mouratoglou says her situation is comparable to Gauff's when she was rising through the ranks.
Failure is an important part of learning to deal with that pressure, explains Mouratoglou, "because failure is understanding."
At the academy, he says they teach youngsters to vocalize the pressure and nerves they feel before a game and that it has negatively affected them.
"Failure is not a good thing," he says.
"Of course, our job is to make them successful, but we know that on the road to success there will also be some failures, necessarily. The important thing is that those failures are always used to learn and improve."
"So when they fail because of the pressure, they have to know exactly how they felt before the game. They have to realize that they had extra pressure that day that they didn't know how to handle and it has to be constant feedback."
"They'll know that next time, when they feel that extra pressure, they have to explain it. They have to tell the coach, 'I don't feel good today. I feel that pressure today. I feel nervous.' First, they have to acknowledge it. Second, they have to express it, and when they do, we can help them work on it."
Efremova with world number 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic.
Naturally, some will be able to process pressure and nerves better than others.
Mouratoglou says that Efremova is still learning, but has already shown remarkable improvements during her time at the academy.
Although much of the pressure comes from the expectations of "everyone in the tennis industry", Mouratoglou explains that the incredible level of demand Efremova has for herself means that she puts more pressure on herself than anyone else.
"He always expects to win," he says.
"For her there is no other option but to win trophies."
Julia Efremova says she sees that determination in her daughter every day during training and believes "with all her heart" that one day she "will be the best" tennis player in the world.
"I know his personality. I know who he is. I know how hard he works. I know how much he loves him. I know how he believes," he says.
"First of all, she believes in herself. She has no doubts. She has no doubts in her heart that she loves him. So from the bottom of my heart, I know she's going to be the best."
"Sometimes when I get angry and don't like something during training, I ask him: 'What do you want from tennis?'
And she says to me, 'I want to become a legend.' It's not [enough] for her just to be number one in the world."
Efremova's mother posts her successes on her Instagram account.
get over the tragedy
There is perhaps no greater testament to Efremova's remarkable composure than her most recent win at the Tennis Europe Junior tournament in Sweden.
His father, former amateur player Alexey Efremov, had been battling lymphoma for more than two years.
During the tournament, Efremova's mother received the news that her husband was going to lose this battle soon.
Julia says she had to make the difficult decision of whether to tell Efremova during the tournament or wait for it to end.
"It was very hard, but Ksenia was in the tournament and I had to tell her," he says.
"Of course she cried. She was in shock. She asked me, 'Maybe you can wake him up.'"
"I told her, 'No, Ksenia. It's impossible, she's already in heaven.' I asked if maybe she wanted to stop. Maybe stop the tournament and have her come back."
"She said, 'No, I'm going to play this tournament to the end.'"
Julia Efremova says that her daughter's spirit reminds her of her late husband.
The final took place on Friday, December 3, just six days after Alexey's death.
Efremova won the final and dedicated the title to her father.
"In memory of my father, who passed away during this tournament in Sweden," Efremova wrote on her Instagram account, which is run by her mother.
"First place. You will always live in my heart as the strongest person in the universe. I will do my best to make your dreams come true and I know you will see it from above."
Julia says that Efremova's decision to continue in the tournament didn't surprise her too much, explaining that that kind of resilience is something she inherited from her father.
He knows that it was a decision that Alexey would have approved of.
"Her father loved her very much," says Julia.
"She has his spirit. She is a strong person, very strong, and she inherited that spirit from him."