Inside Amanda Anisimova's plan to become tennis's next superstar

Amanda Anisimova made headlines with upset wins at both the Australian and French Opens. Can she continue that success at the US Open? Danielle St. Laurent for ESPN

"HER HAIR NEEDS more lift."

Just after 9 a.m. at Pier 59 Studios in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, Amanda Anisimova stands expressionless in black warm-up pants and a mesh Nike top, her arms crossed low over her waist. "We're going to turn the wind machine on now. You good with that?" the photographer asks, and the 17-year-old nods. "Whatever you want," she says, and smiles lightly.

Slow jams fill the room, and sunlight floods in from windows that stretch the length of the studio. A photo assistant flips a switch, and Anisimova's blond locks fly gently behind her. At 5-foot-11, with long legs and high cheekbones, Anisimova is often compared to a young Maria Sharapova. "I don't like comparisons too much," she says. "I want to be my own person with my own features."

She steps into the glow of a panel light and lifts a baby blue racket above her head until its strings cast trippy shadows onto her face. "That's perfect," the photographer says as she raises the camera. "Sorry the light's so intense. You can look at me if you want."

"It's OK," Anisimova replies. "I can look at the light." She stares into it without squinting. Between setups, Anisimova laughs and jokes around, and her youth washes over her. But when the camera points her way, she is all business.

She barely acknowledges her mom, Olga, who arrives with the family Chihuahua, Miley. When her mom offers to make her a breakfast plate, Amanda promises she's still full from pizza last night. She doesn't check her phone. This might be Anisimova's first magazine shoot, but she understands how one great shoot might lead to another and how these photos will outlive the magazine they appear in.

"I started looking at tennis as my job this year," Anisimova says at lunch later that afternoon. After beating No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka to advance to the fourth round at the Australian Open in January, Anisimova defeated defending French Open champion Simona Halep, one of the best clay-court players in the world, in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in June. "It was a year of firsts, and I'm getting used to playing on tour full time," she says. As she speaks, her voice rarely changes its inflection. Where many teens punctuate statements with uptick question marks, Anisimova goes low. She holds eye contact, speaks slowly and doesn't try to fill lulls with small talk.

"Last year I had big moments, like when I did well at Indian Wells, and it was very surprising to me," she says. "But this year, it was like, this is what I do now. I don't want to be surprised when I do something big."

As the youngest player in the top 25, Anisimova heads to the U.S. Open at a critical moment in her fledgling career. She has strung together enough results to captivate tennis fans and attract a litany of interested sponsors. She has a team of coaches, trainers, managers and publicists who see her as a once-in-a-generation talent and are working to build her up as a player and as a brand.

As the Williams era nears its end, Anisimova's team is betting on her potential to be the next great American tennis star. And she is all-in.

SEVEN YEARS AGO, on the sunbaked courts at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida, 10-year-old Amanda and her parents, Olga and Konstantin, watched then-three-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova hit balls between matches at the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open.

While they watched, Olga and Konstantin urged their daughter to pay attention to not only Sharapova's power and technique but her focus and drive, even at practice. Russian immigrants who moved to the U.S. with their oldest daughter, Maria, in 1998, Olga and Konstantin understood the work and sacrifice it took for Sharapova to reach the highest levels of the game. Now they wanted Amanda, a budding American talent, to adopt Sharapova's approach. "I was kind of a silly kid," Anisimova says. "Maria [Sharapova] was always very serious. It popped out in my eyes when I watched her."

At the time, Anisimova couldn't have known she would one day try to both emulate and distinguish herself from Sharapova.

When IMG agent Max Eisenbud set out to make a star of Sharapova, whom he signed at age 11, he focused on differentiating her from a previous blond Russian tennis prodigy. "When Maria was 14 or 15, Rolling Stone did an article and called her the next [Anna] Kournikova," Eisenbud says. Nearly a decade later, he now represents Anisimova and has plans to make the girl who stood courtside that day in Florida a household name in her own right. His strategy with Sharapova was to zag where Kournikova had zigged. They turned down offers from men's magazines looking to do bikini shoots and granted longer interviews only after Sharapova won tournaments. The strategy with Anisimova hinges on an opportunity Sharapova didn't have.

"Once Amanda beat Halep, I put a team in place to make sure her social media is on point," Eisenbud says. "You can't get endorsement deals without 
having good social media. That is the world we live in now. I talked to her about how many times a day to post and that it might seem weird, but people want to know what you had for breakfast or when you're training. And how one stupid post can ruin everything."

On Instagram, @amandaanisimova shares behind-the-scenes moments at tournaments, as well as what she does with friends and family on her days off, like a recent outing to have her ear pierced with her best friend, Camila. Through daily posts, her fans learn that she is passionate about helping animals, loves horror movies and Mom's red caviar pancakes, dislikes cucumber on sushi and hasn't ruled out the possibility of attending medical or veterinary school later in her career.

In many ways, hers is a typical teenage Instagram account, if 132,000 followers and rising is typical. Anisimova and her team understand these posts are important. They give fans and potential partners a peek into her life with a veneer of authenticity that is critical to stardom in 2019.

Anisimova isn't shy about speaking up on social media either and cites Serena Williams as a model of how athletes can use their voices for good. "Sometimes I tweet about political things too," she says. "Gun laws, that's really close to me because of the shooting that happened [at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland]. I had a friend who went to that school, so that really scared me. I know parents who don't even want their kids to go to school because they're scared."

Instagram helps characterize who Anisimova is beyond tennis. But no matter how on-point her social media presence, or how well-crafted Eisenbud's marketing strategies, the most crucial element for her brand is winning. "Once Maria won Wimbledon," Eisenbud says, "there weren't many Anna comparisons after that."

ANISIMOVA WAS BORN ready. As Olga tells it, she felt the first contractions leading up to Amanda's birth while standing on a tennis court in New Jersey on an August day in 2001. "I said, 'Not now!'" she remembers. Her older daughter, Maria, was 13 at the time and playing in a local tournament near their home in Freehold. "Amanda was at tennis courts from the start," Olga says. "She saw so much. That is maybe why she had such hand-eye coordination."

The family had been in the U.S. for only three years. When they arrived from Moscow, Maria and her parents learned both English and tennis together. "We couldn't afford for me to take lessons every day, so my parents would pay for a lesson once a week, and on the other days, they would feed me balls imitating what they learned in the lessons," Maria recalls. When Amanda was 3, her parents left their banking jobs in New York and moved the family to the Miami area full time. Amanda stood behind the fence at Maria's practices and imitated her sister's movements, swinging her tiny arms back and forth with an imaginary racket. Soon after, Olga began coaching her along with kids from the neighborhood. "It created this social environment for Amanda that was like year-round summer camp," Maria remembers. "Her best friends are some of the kids my mom coached back then. I would never live with myself if I knew that we stripped my sister of her childhood because of the potential of being a pro tennis player."

But the most important relationship in Anisimova's life was with her mom, who still travels with her to every tournament and acts as coach, physio, mentor and manager. The two women even wear a matching piece of red string around their left wrists, "to keep us in a safe circle and keep negative things away," Anisimova says.

Maria went on to play college tennis at the University of Pennsylvania, but it was her sister who quickly began turning heads at the U.S. Tennis Association training center. "I was asked to hit with her when she was 7, so another coach and I put her through a pretty good workout," says Kathy Rinaldi, a former pro and the current head of women's tennis at the USTA. "She ended up throwing up on the court. I looked at the other coach and said, 'Look what we just did.' But she came back for more. You forgot about her age because she was so advanced."

For the next several years, with Konstantin as her head coach and Olga traveling with her to tournaments, Amanda charged through the junior ranks. "She stood out to me at 11," says her longtime coach Nick Saviano, who has also coached Eugenie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens. "There was no doubt she was going to be a top-class player. She didn't have one foot in and one foot out, and she loved to compete."

At 14, Anisimova played in her first pro tournament and quickly showed she could perform in the spotlight. In a match that could foreshadow a great American rivalry to come, she defeated fellow South Florida wunderkind Coco Gauff to capture the 2017 U.S. Open junior title. Anisimova has been overshadowed by Gauff, who became an overnight sensation during Wimbledon in July after defeating Venus Williams. But she has steadily racked up promising results. At Indian Wells in 2018, she defeated two top-25 players, including then-No. 9 Petra Kvitova, snapping her 14-match win streak.

In April, two months before her French Open breakthrough, Anisimova captured her first WTA title at the Copa Colsanitas, a tournament held in Bogotá, Colombia, home of her current head coach, Jaime Cortes. "I know with Amanda, she is a great project," says Cortes, who compares Anisimova's competitiveness with that of Rafael Nadal and her efficient power to Roger Federer's. "I can make her No. 1 in the world."

Yutaka Nakamura, head of tennis physical conditioning at the IMG Academy, has placed his bets on Anisimova too. After spending eight years on the road with Sharapova, Nakamura began working with Anisimova in January to build the strength and endurance to support her power and speed and prevent injury. "Amanda is 17, so I have time to build," Nakamura says. "I have an opportunity to create, to reshape and redevelop. I am very excited about the project that I have. I believe Amanda can be the one."

There is a palpable enthusiasm in the men's voices as they talk about the Anisimova Project. Young players with her blend of talent, drive and "it" factor don't come along often, and these men are professionals at spotting the next big thing. They both believe they can lift her to the next level, but they also know they must tread cautiously. "I need to make sure we are making a great team in order to maximize Amanda," Cortes says. "If everyone loses their reality, especially with a young girl ..." He trails off. "We have to be careful to keep her feet on the ground. That is most important."

Anisimova, who hopes to be playing in the third round of the U.S. Open on her 18th birthday, is aware of the expectations around her and knows all of these people have their hopes pinned on her. She might be their project, but their project is first and foremost her life's work.

"They want me to be happy, and they look for me to be relaxed," Anisimova says. "[But] I get on myself and I push myself as hard as possible." She knows success is ultimately up to her. "I like surprising people," she says. "When people doubt me, I like proving that I can do something that they never would have thought possible."

THE SHOOT FINISHED, Anisimova changes back into high-waisted stonewashed jeans, a black ribbed top and white platform Nikes, says her goodbyes and, with her publicist, her mom and Miley in tow, heads toward the elevator. Outside, the humidity is stifling. "It feels so good," Anisimova says. "It was so cold in there." She knows the area well because Maria and her husband live around the corner, and she leads the way toward Chelsea Market, a hip indoor food court. Inside its bustling hallway, she chooses a lunch spot, grabs a green juice from a cooler out front and heads toward a table near the back.

While Olga looks over some photos she took on her phone and Miley steals sips of Olga's grapefruit juice, Amanda talks about her aspirations for the year ahead. "My next biggest goal is to win a grand slam. Soon," she says, smiling coyly. "I know it's not going to happen overnight. An old coach told me something you do now might help you in three months, and that's definitely true. Every day I work the hardest I can. I know that's what I have to do for my career to go the way I want it to."

The food arrives, and the table falls quiet as everyone begins to eat. After a few minutes, as casual chitchat replaces the silence, Anisimova starts feeling around the table as if she's looking for something. "Where's the phone that was recording our interview?" she asks, before spotting the red case on the far side of the table. "She turned it off to give you a break so you can eat," her publicist explains.

"You can turn it back on," Anisimova says, taking a bite of her salad. "I'm still at work."