The first time Liana Sharrat-Blanksby had anything remotely sports ball-shaped lobbed in her direction was while playing swingball in her back garden. And, at just three years of age, she mustered all her strength and sent the ball screaming back.
The ball rocketed towards the head of Liana’s father, Paul, a former professional squash player who had hoped his precocious daughter would have a talent for a sport.
The former Great British racket ball champion had already tried Liana out with a golf putter.
But in that moment, in that one furious, wild stroke of his daughter’s tennis racket, Paul’s got his answer. His child was going to be something special.
“I wanted to explore and see if she had any talent and as soon as she whacked the swingball I knew she had something really special,” Paul says five years on, with Liana now eight years old.
“She showed pure raw talent and loved the game as soon as she started playing. Liana knew right away that she wanted to play the sport.”
Despite struggling to clear the net with her line of vision, Liana is much more disciplined than when she started playing and has spent the last two years being coached by Dave Marray - the brother of Wimbledon doubles champion Johnny - at Hallamshire Tennis Club.
And, like proud father Paul, Dave sees potential greatness in Liana.
“From the outset I could see that Liana was a pretty special athlete,” Dave said.
“She had excellent natural co-ordination, movement and agility, great core physical ingredients for player development.
“At eight-years-old, Liana is definitely the best, naturally equipped player I have seen and worked with in my 16 years as a coach.”
Despite such great expectations, however, both parents and coach have to manage Liana carefully, to avoid both over-coaching and the risk of burn-out.
“I actually have to restrain her from playing every day and hide the rackets from her,” smiled Paul.
“I don’t want the game to become a chore for her and right now everything is about her being able to enjoy school and look forward to having fun at tennis.”
Dave added: “We must remember the most important thing at this stage of her development is her love and enjoyment of the sport. This is something Liana has in abundance. If she could have a racket in her hand for 24 hours a day she would.
“I’ve have never once felt she has been reluctant to play, and her appetite for learning is phenomenal.”
Liana is too young to comprehend what a career as a tennis starlet will entail but she already knows she wants to be the best: I am only young and starting out but I would like to win all the major tournaments,” Liana said.
“Some people expect me to say I want to be like Maria Sharapava or Venus Williams but my tennis heroes are Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, because they have fantastic style and determination.
“Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I should dream to play like female stars that are playing now - I want to be the best and those two players have the right calm, cool winner’s attitude on court.”
Liana, who lives in Worksop with her family, was recently awarded a scholarship at Hallamshire Tennis Academy and travels to Sheffield twice a week to work with Dave and Elliot Chang, the Academy’s serving coach.
The young tennis starlet is also being constantly monitored by the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) and has recently received a scholarship in conjunction with the Nottingham Tennis Academy, where she is coached three times a week by Hollie Bambridge at the city’s Performance Academy.
“It’s a heavy burden time wise and financially and we couldn’t manage all the travelling if it wasn’t for the help of both sets of Grandparents - I’m so grateful to them,” said Paul.
Liana, who trains 11 hours a week, has won her last five ‘sponge ball’ tournaments, where she has been competing against children up to two years older. But in April, she will move up to playing ‘orange ball’ competitions in the under nine category.
“Liana has really stood out when she has played and what sets her apart is her brilliant footwork and the technique she already has with her forehand and backhand,” Paul said.
“At present she isn’t benefiting from playing spongeball tournaments because she was beating opponents too easily, so we are holding back and she will progress to play with a heavier ball on a bigger court.”
The future looks extremely bright for the eight-year-old.
But Paul, though hopeful that the LTA will help develop Liana’s talent, believes that the family may have to consider moving their daughter to Spain or America so she can reach her full potential: “I am hoping the LTA will evolve and implement relevant changes to help produce the next world class athletes,” he said.
“But right now we are not producing enough top quality tennis players in this country. I’m concerned because at the moment it is still an elitist sport in this country, whatever anyone says, and it is worrying that, looking behind Liana, there seems to be fewer and fewer talented youngsters playing. We may well have to make the move and it has already been mentioned to Liana, which she is excited about. It’s not a negative because Andy Murray trained in Spain and Laura Robson has received coaching abroad.
“I know that Liana is capable of becoming one of the greatest female tennis players and we want to do what’s best for her. And even if she does go abroad she will always represent Great Britain and be proud of where she was born.”
Hollie added: “Liana is a great asset to the sessions... she always comes with a smile on her face and sets world class standards to whatever the challenge/drill that is set. She is learning to become more competitive through performance process goals on the court and is looking to increase her competition schedule. The near future is promising and it will be great to see her compete in the following months to see where she is, compared to her peers.
“From there she will have a clear picture of what the level is and I feel this will spur her on to another level.”
Liana is currently sponsored by Nick Firth Tiles (pictured), Film and Foil and Russel Richardsons Secure Shredding, however anyone interested in also contributing in any way is invited to contact Paul on: firstname.lastname@example.org.