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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mother of Russian Tennis

The Spartak tennis school is a beautiful place: 22 impeccably kept clay and hard courts are sprinkled around a 100-hectare site you could quite easily mistake for an arboretum.

Chalet-style wooden huts serving as players' changing rooms huddle in a central clearing. Narrow concrete paths wind between the huts and courts. Even the stray dogs have neat fur and sparkling eyes.

Obviously, this place, near Sokolniki Park in northeastern Moscow, isn't just any tennis school. It's where Yelena Dementyeva and Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open finalists, cut their teeth. It's where tennis star-turned-celebrity Anna Kournikova wowed passers-by with her fizzing passing shots.

But most of all, it's the home from home of Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, the legendary septuagenarian tennis coach for whom the words life and tennis are synonymous.

"The right environment is critical," said Preobrazhenskaya, looking cool as she sat courtside in wrap-around shades. "We grow champions here," she added, without a hint of arrogance.

Preobrazhenskaya trains several groups of up to eight children aged 4 to 16, six times a week, in a timetable that has barely changed since she become a coach in the 1960s. That commitment was underlined when she agreed to an interview on the condition that she could coach and chat simultaneously.

"They are my children," she said, before reaching down to catch a stray ball, tossing it back and saying "Keep going, Kolya, you will get it right next time."

Oxana Onipko / MT
"We grow champions here," says Larisa Preobrazhenskaya.
Proof of Preobrazhenskaya's almost maternal approach came in 2000, when Kournikova, in an interview with a Russian newspaper, said, "She always was and always will be my second mother."

At the end of every two-hour session, each of Preobrazhenskaya's pupils dutifully strides up to her and says, "Thank you, Larisa Dmitrievna." The parents, outside the court, rarely approach.

"The secret to coaching is love and beauty," Preobrazhenskaya said. "Love and respect for the children -- because each one of them is different -- and beauty of movement. If a forehand or a backhand looks beautiful, then it is likely to be more effective."

That might sound odd at first, but to Preobrazhenskaya, a flawless technique -- and she has been around long enough to see every possible technique -- epitomizes beauty.

"She is a fantastic person," said one of Preobrazhenskaya's on-court coaches, a 24-year-old who gave only her first name, Yevgenia. "The children who come here are very lucky to have her as a coach," she added.

They are also very rich, or at least their parents are. Lessons with Preobrazhenskaya cost 4,000 rubles (about $160) for three 90-minute group sessions in one week.

"Unfortunately, tennis is not a game for the financially disadvantaged," Preobrazhenskaya admitted.

Larisa Dmitrievna Preobrazhenskaya was born into a sporting family on Oct. 3, 1929, in Kiev.

Her father was a keen amateur boxer and basketball player in his time, but it was her mother who took her to a tennis court at the age of seven, by which time the family had moved to Moscow.

"Of course, there was nowhere to play back then," Preobrazhenskaya said. "But we found a deserted aircraft hanger near the CSKA sports club and marked out a tennis court."

Oxana Onipko / MT
A young player at a Spartak tennis school training session.
Preobrazhenskaya beat all comers in the hanger and quickly developed into a professional player, having to dump gymnastics and basketball, which she had enjoyed as an amateur.

The confines of the Soviet Union meant that Russian tennis players couldn't test themselves on the world stage; to this day Preobrazhenskaya's only regret.

"We couldn't go anywhere. How did we know if we were as good as the Americans, or the British? It was a real shame," Preobrazhenskaya said.

She experienced domestic success in 1955, when she was awarded the Soviet Union's top sporting award, a "Master of Sport of the U.S.S.R." At the time, she led the country's singles rankings.

Preobrazhenskaya turned to coaching in 1967. "By that time, I realized tennis was in my blood, and that death would come before I gave up tennis," she said.

No other coach in Soviet or post-Soviet history has received as many awards in tennis coaching.

"I had a nice time as a coach in the Soviet Union, but it was after the break-up, when I could travel with my students, that I really started enjoying my life to the maximum," she said.

The highlight of her 40-year coaching career, apart from watching her kids "dancing around the court every day," as she puts it, was one kid in particular who came along in the early '90s.

"Annochka had this magic you can't describe," Preobrazhenskaya said, referring to retired tennis player Anna Kournikova in the affectionate diminutive form.

"From the first day she walked onto the court, you couldn't take your eyes off her. Her talent and enthusiasm made my job easy, really."

Kournikova, whom Preobrazhenskaya considers never to have fulfilled her potential despite a top 10 ranking, used to call Preobrazhenskaya after every match in her professional career. Kournikova quit tennis for good in 2006, having never won a major tournament.

"We will have champions here at Spartak, but we will never have another Anya," Preobrazhenskaya said.

Preobrazhenskaya, who stopped hitting balls three years ago because of an old knee injury, said she did not know when she would quit coaching.

"As long as I have the energy to get out of bed, I will keep coming to Spartak," she said.