Before the Williams sisters there were the Maleeva sisters, Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena, three world class tennis players from Bulgaria. Manuela, the oldest, was the most accomplished, winning 19 WTA singles titles and twice reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open. From 1984 until 2004 there was seldom a Maleeva out of the top ten. So when I discovered that the family now owned a tennis club in Sofia, I decided to stop there. I figured it was my best chance to work on my game before the start of my next tournament in Klosters, Switzerland on August 5. And my game needed work.
My first morning in Sofia I made my way to the Maleeva Tennis Center, which was located in a more suburban area six kilometers from my downtown hostel. It’s a state-of-the-art-facility with a weight room and racquetball court in addition to 10 well-groomed red clay courts. The locker room also gleamed although no one was using it. In the lounge area were many photos on the walls of the famous sisters, most prominently a picture of all three of them and their mother at the awards ceremony for the 1989 Fed Cup. I hadn’t brought my racquet with me. I hoped to arrange something for tomorrow, either a lesson or, less likely, find someone who needed a hitting partner. The day was another scorcher; by nine in the morning the temperature had already exceeded 90.
At the snack bar I requested a bottle of water.
“Cold or warm?” the girl asked.
The question startled me.
“Do some people like warm water?” I said.
At the front desk I was able to book a lesson for the next morning; they had a sizable roster of staff pros. Then I went outside and explored the grounds. The courts are attractively laid out but there seemed to be little shade. Only the nearest court was being used. A willowy country-club blonde wearing tennis whites was hitting with a young male pro. I parked myself in a cozy nook near a hedge which provided a bit of shade and watched them. But someone soon found me. Actually she was turning on the court sprinklers. She was a fit-looking, older woman with short blonde hair.
“Are you the man who just booked a lesson for tomorrow?” she asked me.
I admitted to it.
“It’s going to be the hottest day ever in Sofia,” she said. “Forty-three.”
We chatted about the weather for awhile and I became curious about her. She had the gait of an athlete and an authoritative manner. She couldn’t be one of the Maleeva sisters, could she? I did some quick arithmetic. Manuela would probably now be in her mid-forties. This woman was surely older than she looked and she looked older than her mid forties.
“Lets see,” I said probing. “The Maleeva sisters are Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena.”
“My daughters,” she said.
I introduced myself and told her of my travels and plans to write a book. She asked me how I learned of their facility. I said that it was mentioned in my guidebook. I vaguely recalled that the Maleevas had been trained by their mother, Youlia Berberian. I asked her if she herself ever played tennis professionally.
“I was nine times champion of Bulgaria,” she said. “But in those days the Communists were in power and I was not allowed to travel outside the country.”
“It was unthinkable,” she said.
I wanted to ask which of her daughters she considered the best player but thought better of it.
“They gave you court 10 for tomorrow, it has shade,” she said, and then she was gone, off to her chores.
I wondered if I’d made a mistake booking a lesson for such a hot day and considered cancelling. But I’d played tennis on other brutal days and survived. I felt I could handle it.
The hostel I was staying in central Sofia had the feel of a college dorm. The other guests were twenty somethings and seemed to spend most of their time in the large common room, either sprawled on the couches or engrossed with their laptops. No doubt this place appealed to them because it was cheap, costing only 10 euros per night and it included a buffet breakfast and supper. Supper was only a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce but the breakfast was a nice spread. It included platters of olives and sliced tomatoes, as well as pretty much everything else you’d expect, though not bacon or eggs. I was much older than most of the other guests. I kept to myself. After returning from the Maleeva center I sat down on a wooden bench outside the common room. This was the area where the smokers congregated. It was around ten thirty. I fell into conversation with a thirtyish, bearded guy named Paul who said he was from St. Louis. He was living in Sweden teaching English and was now backpacking through southern and eastern Europe. As we chatted it was clear he took a sort of pride in being alienated from America.
“I don’t really fit in anywhere,” he said.
Like other American expatriates I’d met over the years he seemed rather too fond of being one. St. Louis was too provincial for him, New York City too fast paced. He didn’t much care for Sweden either, saying the people there were boring. When another guest stopped to talk with him I got up and went to my room. The room was spacious and had four bunk beds. W hen I’d fallen a sleep last night, seven of the eight beds were occupied. Now I saw that two of the people had moved on. At these youth hostels there was always comings and goings.
The next day, though stifling, seemed in truth no hotter than many others since I’d arrived in the Balkans. The low humidity made a difference: I was sweating heavily rather than profusely. The pro they assigned to me was a very tall young woman named Desi. I told her I wanted to work on my serve and drop shot, my two glaring weaknesses.
She was a pleasure to hit with. Often she would stop our rallying and walk toward the net to give me pointers, which I appreciated. When I take a lesson I like to get my money’s worth. During one rest period Desi told me she recently retired from the tour. Her ranking had been in the 500s in singles and 300s in doubles. She never played tournaments in the States but played in many in Australia. She had started around the same time as Djokovic, whom she knew well.
“A very nice man,” she said.
Then we played points with me serving. She massacred my serve, routinely smacking her returns into a corner for winners. Or else drop- shotting it for more winners. She ran me ragged. I could hardly win a point. For someone who preferred hard courts, she sure knew how to wrong- foot an opponent. My breathing labored I did the unheard of and ended the session several minutes early. Attending the U.S. Open qualifying rounds over the years, I sometimes flattered myself into thinking that I might be able to get a game or two against some of the lower ranked women. Now I knew better. After all, they’re 6.0s, meaning they’re four levels above me. It’s like me playing against a 2.0. I hoped Desi didn’t have the same opinion of my game that I have of the 2.0s.
For the next day’s lesson my instructor was Ivo, a rangy, swarthy guy with the perfect build for tennis. Ivo had also played on the tour but seemed reluctant to tell me what his ranking had been. We worked on the same things that I did with Desi and with about the same results. Between the two of them, they pointed out five different flaws in my serve. I was aware of them but now I resolved to finally develop a correct service motion. The easiest flaw to rectify was simply to stand with my body angled away from the deuce court: the others, I realized, would take practice. Ivo’s contemporaries on the tour were guys in their late twenties like Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsaveric but for some reason he never attained their elite level. I liked hearing his stories about the other players. He recalled the 14-year-old Rafael Nadal playing in a junior tournament in Sofia. Even then, Ivo said, it was obvious Nadal was special.
“Rafa is two years younger than me,” he said.
On my last morning in Sofia I set out as usual for my lesson at the Maleevas. But I decided to try a shortcut after doing a few errands nearby. I had only to turn left at the next corner, and from there I knew the route to the bus stop cold. It was a no-brainer. But somehow I missed the turn. I made the next left but by then I was badly and infuriatingly lost. I was annoyed with myself and worried I’d be late for my lesson. I became increasingly frantic. And my Achilles tendon was beginning to hurt. Never again, I vowed, would I try to outsmart an unfamiliar city. At one point I would have bet my life I was headed in the right direction. But first one person and then another steered me otherwise. By the time I finally reached the bus stop I had walked probably two miles out of my way. If I hadn’t allowed plenty of extra time for the errands, I would’ve missed my lesson.
“Unbelievable,” I was still muttering, as I stepped onto the court and began spraying forehands all over the grounds.
Only that afternoon did I discovered the lovely, tree lined pedestrian boulevard that is Sofia’s main tourist area. It was only four blocks from my hostel. But I’d spent so much time at the Maleevas that I had little chance to do much exploring. Plus the heat was enervating. It would have been a shame to leave Sofia without seeing this street. I sat down at one of the many outdoor cafes and ordered a local beer. And then another. To my mind the Bulgarian beers I’d sampled compared favorably with all but the best German beers. They were also half the price. When I paid the bill, the pretty blonde waitress seemed to assume I didn’t want my change because I had paid in euros instead of the Bulgarian currency. But my mood wasn’t spoiled. I would be going to exciting Athens in a few hours, leaving Bulgaria with a revamped serve and a sense of optimism. Whether my new serve was any better than the old one would be answered in three weeks in Switzerland.