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Tennis: Sofia sisterhood show the route to success


Friday, 23 October 1992

NOT even the Wombles of Wimbledon, who count Uncle Bulgaria in their number, could have imagined a time when three sisters from Sofia would be ranked together in the world top 20 while British tennis was still scrabbling for a place on the court.

Yulia Maleeva, who has coached her daughters, Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena, to this lofty position on comparatively meagre resources, is entitled to wonder what is taking the Lawn Tennis Association so long.

'I do not understand how it is possible with so much money - so much money - not to organise the proper way to produce a few better players than you have,' she said at the Brighton Centre yesterday.

'How we did it the Bulgarian way was with no money and with so much bureaucracy and red tape that I think my biggest victory was not letting Communism destroy me or my girls. They could have been totally brainwashed. This sounds like a cliche, but my proudest moment is outside of tennis. It's the freedom that has come to Bulgaria.'

It has not been the most encouraging of weeks. Katerina, 23, lost in the first round of the Midland Bank Championships on Tuesday, and Magdalena, the youngest at 17, was eliminated in the second round yesterday.

Though this was disappointing, Magdalena at least opened the tournament with a win against the player ranked immediately above her, Sabine Appelmans, of Belgium, before losing to the seventh seed, Nathalie Tauziat, of France, 6-1, 6-4. The matches gave her new coach, Pavel Slozil, of Steffi Graf fame, an opportunity to assess the work to be done.

Among their accomplishments, each of the Maleeva sisters has defeated Martina Navratilova, the nine-times Wimbledon champion, who consoles herself by recalling a victory against the mother. This appears to have slipped Mrs Maleeva's mind: 'I remember playing Pavel Slozil in mixed doubles, but I don't remember playing Martina.'

Slozil's role is to assist with Magdalena's supervision for 15 to 20 weeks of the year, though the 48-year-old matriach has made it clear that his methods will be followed. 'I don't mind if he is the boss and I am the assistant,' she said. 'I don't mind being just another mother as long as Magdalena's tennis is progressing.'

Manuela (now Mrs Maleeva- Fragniere and a resident of Switzerland) and Katerina also have their own coaches. 'I have told my girls everything I know, time and again,' the mother said. This knowledge was gleaned from success in domestic competition (she was the Bulgarian champion on nine occasions), from a limited amount of international experience and from coaching at the army sports club, CSKA Sofia.

It was there that she met her husband, Giorgi, who played college basketball while studying to be a lecturer in electronics. 'George comes to the tennis tournaments sometimes, but it is not a lot of fun for him waiting between matches.'

The first occasion the family of five was allowed to travel abroad together was as a result of a bureaucratic error, she said. 'The moment we arrived in America the FBI was there, asking if we needed any help. I think they thought we were going to defect.'

She told how the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence would control the athletes and staff at the CSKA Sports Club. 'Somebody writes a report against you, and it may be anonymous, and no one can save you from this stupid letter. One of my dreams, which will probably never come true, is to see my dossier, to see what they accused me of. Did I kill somebody? Did I steal?

'Communism is the most sophisticated system to destroy. They can destroy anything, anybody, everything. They can produce for a few years, but what they have produced is bound to collapse.

'The CSKA Sofia Club involves thousands. They were paid with government money, the taxpayers' money. That's why it is collapsing now. There is no more money. It is finished. They will have to do it the way things are done in the West, by earning their own money somehow to cover expenses.'

In her early days as a coach, Yulia was helped by her father, a retired watchmaker who lives in the United States. He supplied her with a batch of wooden Chris Evert rackets.

Until two year ago, the sisters would hand 10 per cent of their prize-money to the government, 'to get the passports early', but earned enough for this to be a small price to pay.

'They have done well,' mother said, 'but when I say to myself, 'Can you do it again with somebody else?' I'm not sure.'
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