Katarina Maleeva relishes retirement
READING ROOM: Over the net and through the woods
09:01 Mon 27 Nov 2006
It is a sunny weekday morning and Katya Maleeva is working in her office. In the background, the rhythmic thump of racket and ball mesh with a fantastic view of the tennis courts from her window.
As the mother of two rises with athletic grace and a warm smile, one senses a person at ease with her past and content with her present. Where there could be sense of sadness that the years of limelight are refocused on another, there seems to be happiness with her role as mother and businesswoman. Where there might be bitterness over a childhood invested in the tennis court instead of in a living room, there is appreciation for the experiences and the lessons learned. Where there might be a competitive spirit looking for another adversary, there is a passion to share her knowledge and skills with a new generation.
For Maleeva, the thump of racket and ball have always woven into with the rhythms of her life. As a child, it was mornings of playing at a nearby playground while her mother practiced; as a teenager, it was her hand on the racket competing in front of the world; as an adult, it is her creative arm extending the opportunity for others to experience and appreciate that which has always been a part of her life. Tennis.
In October of 2006, Katya Maleeva’s name and star were engraved in the Bulgarian Walk of Fame located in front of Mladost Arena. She, along with sisters Magdalena and Manuela, became the seventh, eighth and ninth Bulgarians to receive this unique and exciting acknowledgement. Asked to comment on the star, she simply states: “It was a big surprise and of course, it is nice to know that other people acknowledge what you have done. I am lucky that I played but it was all-consuming. Now I have a family and I am happy with this stage of my life.”
The concept of choice weaves itself throughout the retelling of her life as a tennis champion. In truth, choice reaches back to link her passion and resulting accomplishments with that of her mother Yulia Berberian, a tennis champion in her own right.
There came a time in the 1960s when Bulgarian doors to the West opened momentarily for those of Armenian decent. In 1965, the Berberian family had the chance to emigrate out of the then-communist Bulgaria and they took it. But Yulia left something behind in Bulgaria that day: the man she loved. After a short term in America, the gifted athlete chose to return to a communist Bulgaria in order to marry Maleev. Though she would go on to win nine championships within the Eastern European circuit, her choice meant that she never had the opportunity to compete on a worldwide scale.
Katya and her three sisters were influenced by their mother’s dedication to the game. Maleeva’s young years are linked to Borissovata Gradina where she and her sisters spent time playing on the playground while their mother practiced. In the years to come, Yulia chose to invest her skill with the game in her three daughters. She coached them to individual successes that surpassed her own.
At the age of 15, Katerina began playing professional tennis. However, competing outside of the Eastern Bloc brought stresses for Maleeva as an athlete. There were prejudices to overcome and roadblocks to bypass. The planning and bureaucracy involved in leaving a communist country made travelling difficult. When competing in the West, someone from the family always had to remain behind in order to secure everyone’s return.
In the 70s, it was very difficult to gain permission to travel to the West. Katerina met her maternal grandparents for the first time when she was three. It was 1972. During the next eight years, the government forbade her family to leave Bulgaria.
It was obvious that all three girls had inherited their mother’s talent for tennis. Bulgaria had no indoor tennis courts at that time and practicing in the winter cold was grueling. Eventually, in 1980, the communists allowed Berberian to take her daughters to America for three-month intervals where they spent the winter months practicing on indoor courts. Katerina became a competitor.
Competing with Westerners on Western terms, Maleeva knew that the Americans viewed her differently. Most had never heard of the country of Bulgaria. Comments such as “Oh you look normal” when Katerina referenced her home country indicated both the ignorance and the prejudice of a people unfamiliar with European geography and culture. In spite of the sub-standard Eastern European equipment, the less than ideal Bulgarian conditions for practicing and the emotional stresses of being in a drastically different culture, which could have handicapped Maleeva, she chose to meet those challenges head on and she won.
In all, Katerina won a total of 11 WTA tour singles plus two titles in doubles. She ranked in the top 10 six times and her victories outnumber her losses: 369 to 210. In her professional career, she had victories over other tennis greats such as Martina Navratilova, Arancha Sanchez-Vikario, Gabriella Sabatini, Mary Jo Fernandez, Conchita Martinez and Jennifer Capriati. In fact, well-known tennis names cover the win/loss tablets that document her tennis career.
Maleeva cherishes all of her victories, but perhaps the highlight was a win that followed an operation, which doctors cautioned might end her career. At the age of 20, after a six-month recovery, she won her first match and the battle to beat not only her competition but also the odds of recovery made it feel like a grand slam. Her biggest rivals came in her best years, when she matched athletic skill with Sanchez and Fernandez. The title of best woman tennis pro, in Maleeva’s opinion, belongs to Stefi Graf.
Katerina played professional tennis for 13 years, choosing to end her career at the age of 27 when she was still a strong competitor. The game has changed a lot in the intervening years. “For one thing, the prize money has increased a lot,” she laughs. She then adds that the changes in equipment have resulted in tennis players that are physically stronger and more powerful, which means that more physical conditioning is required to be a winner. That observation is evidenced in players such as the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.
Physical demands also result in more injuries and that can also be seen in today’s tennis athletes. Yet, even with the new emphasis on more muscle mass, Maleeva says that the game of tennis remains as much mental as it is physical. In the end, it may not be who has the strongest arm but rather who has the strongest mind that takes the victory.
Although Maleeva no longer plays professionally, the steady rhythm of the ball and court continue to hold sway in her life. Katerina joined with the rest of her family to bring about the Maleeva Tennis Club, a facility complete with the indoor tennis courts that were absent during Katerina’s years of training. The club is an oasis for sports enthusiasts and fitness lovers, with squash courts, a plethora of fitness programs, a spa and, of course, tennis courts.
Today finds a Katerina who is both content and happy with this new season of life. There is little that she misses of the intensity of the competition. She stretches to find anything that she really misses about playing professionally, eventually voicing that perhaps she misses the fulfilment that comes with winning.
“There is a fulfilment that comes with knowing that all of the practice and the sweat and the pain paid off.” Her drive to compete was an internal choice. “Whatever I start to do, I do it. I had to practice to win. I had to have the will to win in order to succeed.”
Her advice to a younger generation echoes that sentiment. “You have to do in life things that you really like to do. Do them, not because your parents want you to do it but because you want to do it.” She goes on: “Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart and soul. Life has something to offer you so keep trying to find your place in life.”
For a season, that place in life for Maleeva was the tennis court. There were lessons learned there that will shape her life and that of her children. “Tennis teaches you to work hard, to practice to do your best. Maybe most importantly, it teaches you to rely upon yourself and to admire the decisions that you make.” Maleeva’s hard work, her determination to do her best, her ability to make good choices: these qualities made her a competitive force on the tennis court and they contributed to a star of accomplishment on the Bulgarian Walk of Fame.
However, the truest evidence of victory is not in the scoreboard of Maleeva’s tennis career or in the star embedded in a sidewalk. The truest evidence of that victory in the life one of Bulgaria’s most famous is the smile of contentment that spreads across Katerina’s face.
Interesting article about a very content woman that is often been forgotten about today.
US OPEN CHAMPION 2015
Thank you for all these moments over the last years! Supported you until your final point!