One afternoon, while her older brother was practicing on the tennis court, Efremova grabbed one of his rackets – as she often would – and started hitting a basket of balls.
“She started throwing the balls at herself,” Julia Efremova, a former professional tennis player, told CNN.
“I looked at it and was amazed because all the balls flew over the net and she did the moves perfectly. I told myself this was the time to work with her because she had so much passion and she wanted it.”
“It wasn’t really my choice. That’s how she started her career.”
Now 12 years old, Efremova is widely regarded as one of the brightest young talents in tennis and has already become something of a star, with over 35,000 followers on Instagram and signing sponsorship deals with Nike and Yonex.
She currently trains at the prestigious Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France, founded in 1996 by Serena Williams’ current coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
The academy hosts selection weeks throughout the year, with potential young stars coming from all over the world to showcase their talents and try to earn a spot.
“They come to be tested on the physical, the tennis, of course, the mental side,” explains Mouratoglou. “We see them practicing. We also see them competing and then we decide whether we want to help them or not.
“We can’t help everyone, but we do our best to help those we think have the best potential and our role, of course, is to find a way to help them develop their potential and be the best … they may be in the future to do that.”
‘An incredible athlete’
Each player admitted to the academy gains access to a coach, fitness coach, and medical team, providing them with an elite support system from age nine.
They also get detailed debriefs from tournaments and competitive matches, with Mouratoglou saying that “the stress of the competition” is the best way to see which aspects of their game need developing the most.
The likes of Coco Gauff and Stefanos Tsitsipas are among the current rising stars who spent a significant portion of their formative years at the prestigious academy.
Efremova was nine when she came to the academy from Russia with her mother, who is also her coach, and Mouratoglou says he immediately saw that her potential was “huge”.
“Ksenia has incredible potential, I think she has the full package,” he says. “She’s an incredible athlete. I mean, if you look at her social media, you see her. She can do the full splits, she can dance, she can do everything except tennis.
“She moves extremely well. She will probably grow tall because her mother is very tall. Her shots are great. Her technique is extremely clean. She can catch the ball early. She is aggressive. She is a very good competitor. So if you looks at the whole package, it’s great.”
Julia believes that her multi-sports daughter has played a huge part in making her such a versatile athlete at such a young age.
Not only has it given her a range of transferable physical skills – such as stamina and flexibility – that have improved her as a tennis player, but Julia also says it was crucial to ensure Efremova didn’t get bored of playing tennis too much too early.
In fact, Julia says 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 all over the world who have a dream of building their children into a professional tennis player because when they are small and at that age and have this fire in their eyes, you can’t kill it with hours of work on the tennis court,” she explains.
“Ksenia played for example [tennis] only three times a week when she was little and I didn’t force her. I forced her in other ways, so she had dance lessons, swimming lessons, she had English lessons, she also had intermission dance lessons. She was everywhere.”
‘I want to be a legend’
Few children will experience the kind of pressure and expectation that Efremova has faced for years, but Mouratoglou says her situation is similar to Gauff’s as she grew up.
Failure is an important part of the process of dealing with that pressure, Mouratoglou explains, “because failure is understanding.”
At the academy, he says the kids are taught how to express the pressure and nerves they feel before a competition in which it has adversely affected them.
“I mean, failure is not good,” he says. “Of course, our job is to make them succeed, but we know that on the road to success they will also have some failures – and they have to be there. What’s important is that those failures are always used in a way to learn and get better.
“So if 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 couldn’t handle and it has to be a constant feedback.”
“They will know that the next time they feel that extra pressure, they have to explain it. They have to say to the coach, ‘I don’t feel well today. I feel that pressure today. I’m nervous.’ First, they have to recognize it. Second, you have to express it and if they do, we can help them work on that.”
Of course, some kids will handle 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.
While much of the pressure comes from the expectations of “everyone in the entire tennis industry,” Mouratoglou explains that the incredibly high standards Efremova has for herself means she’s putting herself under more pressure than anyone else.
“She always expects to win,” he says. “There is no option for her but to win trophies.”
Julia Efremova says she sees that determination in her daughter every day during training and believes “from the bottom of my heart” that she will one day be “the best” tennis player in the world.
“I know her personality. I know who she is. I know how hard she works. I know how [badly] she wants it. I know how she believes,” she says.
“First of all, she believes in herself. She doesn’t doubt in her head. She doesn’t doubt in her heart that she wants it. So from the bottom of my heart I know she will be the best.
“Sometimes when I get angry and didn’t like something during training, I ask her, ‘What do you want from tennis?’ And she tells me, ‘I want to be a legend.’ It’s not just for her [enough] to become number one in the world.”
There is perhaps no greater proof of Efremova’s remarkable composure than her most recent tournament win, Sweden’s Tennis Europe Junior.
Her father, former tennis coach Alexey Efremov, had been battling lymphoma for more than two years. During the tournament, Efremova’s mother received the news that her husband would soon lose that fight.
Julia says she had to make the tough decision to tell Efremova during the tournament or wait for it to be over.
“It was very tough, but Ksenia was in the tournament and I had to tell her,” she says. “Of course she was crying. She was shocked. She asked me, ‘Maybe you can wake him up.’
“I said, ‘No, Ksenia. It’s impossible, he’s already in the air.’ I asked her if she might want to quit, maybe we’ll stop the tournament and she’ll come back.
“She said, ‘No, I’m going to play this tournament to the end.”
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 managed by her mother. “1st place. You will always live in my heart as the strongest person in the universe. I will do everything I can to make your dreams come true and I know you will see it from above.”
Julia says Efremova’s decision to go ahead with the tournament wasn’t much of a surprise, explaining that she inherited that kind of resilience from her father. She knows it was a decision Alexey would have approved.
“Her father, he loved her so much,” Julia says. “She has his spirit. He is a strong, very strong person and she has this spirit of his.”