Sesil's devilish charm will grow on you
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Published January 9, 2005
It was little more than two years ago, at the Eddie Herr juniors on the grounds of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, and Sesil Karatantcheva -- the very same playful and mischievous Bulgarian teenager who once threatened to kick Maria Sharapova's butt -- walked up to Nick Bollettieri, and this conversation ensued:
"Excuse me," she began. "Yes?" said Bollettieri. "Hi, I'm Sesil and I'm 13 and can you come and watch me play?" "No, I'm very busy." "Please come watch me. I'm good."
She badgered Bollettieri until he finally sent her to a court with one of his coaches. A half-hour later, she had a scholarship to the academy, and her career was on the way.
"I was so innocent and so devilish at the same time," Karatantcheva explained, smiling, as we sat talking at the BallenIsles tennis courts in West Palm Beach a month ago. "I mean, you could not really say no to me. If I asked you to do something, it would be impossible for you not to do it."
No one in women's tennis has a smile this sly. Few players, if any, can match Karatantcheva's playfulness. And she'll be approaching top 20 by the end of this year. She's that good.
She's got some distance to make up, though she'll move from No. 133 to perhaps 120 on Monday after her quarterfinal finish last week at Gold Coast, Australia. She had hoped to get straight into the Australian Open, but it now appears she'll have to qualify.
OK. "Whatever," as she would say. She won three matches to qualify at Gold Coast, then defeated No. 43 Maria Elena Camerin and No. 24 Elena Likhovtseva before losing to Patty Schnyder, who is No. 14.
Karatantcheva also is facing the WTA's age-restriction rules, though that has been relaxed a bit this season. She can play nine tournaments, and if she reaches No. 50 she can play additional tournaments by going through a WTA Tour program designed to test her maturity to handle a fuller schedule.
Oh, she's mature, all right. And garrulous. We talked about the Sharapova incident that occurred at Indian Wells last March. Both train at Bollettieri's, and according to Sesil, Sharapova, who went on to win Wimbledon, ducked out of a practice match.
"I'm going to kick her butt off," Karatantcheva told reporters after defeating Magui Serna in the second round at Indian Wells. Sharapova won 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
"Let's just say I learned my lesson about what I should say and what I should not," Karatantcheva now says. But she's smiling when she says that. "I should be very careful where I say it," she added, laughing.
She's about 5 feet 8 and growing. She's exceedingly athletic and quick around the court. She has technically beautiful ground strokes, and there's no question about the physical part of her game. Bollettieri is plugging in the mental factor.
Sesil travels with her father, who looks like someone's bodyguard and who speaks little English, unlike his daughter, who can regale you for hours. "When I came to the U.S. in 2000 to play the Eddie Herr, my English was very messed up," she said. "I was mixing sentences, places, words, leaving everything in a big mess.
"But eventually I got a lot of American friends, and if I didn't know something, I'd ask. Plus, I was listening to a lot of music, and that's a good way to learn English."
On a tour bursting with fresh revenue after signing a six-year, $88 million sponsorship deal with Sony Ericsson, Karatantcheva becomes yet another attractive personality to go with the Williams sisters and Sharapova.
Serena and Venus, whose games have slipped as they have gone through a succession of injuries and distractions, are trying to stay fit enough to climb back up to No. 1 and 2, and Sharapova, at No. 4, already is almost there.
Yet there are more coming attractions, and Karatantcheva and Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic, both 15 and both training at Bollettieri's, are two teenagers that must be followed this season.
"We're good friends, and we're both just starting out. It's good to know someone who is in your shoes, who knows what you feel like," Sesil said.
The only time they have played was in the final of a small tournament just before the 2004 French Open. "I won. You want to win badly, and you do everything you can to win. But out of the court, that has nothing to do with life on the court," she said.
"After the match, we were just chilling and talking, laughing because we both got leather jackets for reaching the final. Mine was orange and hers was purple. We never talked about the match. We're just two teenagers talking about stupid stuff."
Vaidisova, who turns 16 on April 23, had an earlier start in professional play and already is at No. 75. Karatantcheva, who turns 16 on Aug. 8, stepped up her professional play after winning the 2004 French Open juniors.
Somewhere along the way she's going to play Sharapova again. I doubt she'll be ready to do any derriere kicking for a few months, but who knows? If confidence can take you halfway there, she's already into the second set.