"Something terrible has happened! something just awful!"
Magdalena Maleeva is yelling into the telephone between great, gulping breaths. Her mother, Yulia, and sister Katerina have been stuck between floors in the elevator of their apartment building in Sofia, Bulgaria, for 45 minutes. They have just returned home from the U.S. Open. They didn't know the city had begun to conserve energy by shutting off the electricity every three hours.
Power isn't the only commodity being rationed in Sofia. The line outside the Maleevas' neighborhood gas station is 350 cars long, and the shelves of the grocery stores are nearly empty. Spare parts are nonexistent. You have to take the windshield wipers off your car or risk having them swiped.
The only thing Bulgaria has plenty of is world-class female tennis players. Katerina, 21, finished 1990 ranked sixth in the world, having recently eclipsed sister Manuela, 23, who has bobbed around the Top 10 for seven years and is now No. 9. Magdalena, 15, is widely recognized as the best female junior player in the world after winning junior titles at this year's Australian, French and U.S. Opens. The Maleevas are the most successful sister act ever to play the circuit.
December 3, 1990
How the Maleevas became headliners is by no means obvious. Bulgaria has no grass-roots tennis programs, and none of the sisters is blessed with exceptional athletic ability. "They have each fully developed their physical potential," says Yulia, who taught all three to play and still coaches Katerina and Magdalena. "I sometimes wish they were born with more."
The Maleevas are unobtrusive baseliners with unspectacular strokes, unexceptional speed and seemingly uninspired games. Yet they undo quality opponents with regularity. "They're just very determined, very consistent and work very, very hard," is the assessment of former U.S. Open champ Hana Mandlikova, and there is no better explanation. "I'd give all the credit to Mama."
Once sprung from the elevator, Mama drives Katerina and Magdalena to practice at the Central Sports Club Army. The state-run athletic facility is the locus of much Maleevian history. It is here that Yulia's watchmaker father, Manour Berberian, taught her the game when she was 12; here that she met her future husband, George, a guard on the national basketball team; here that she drilled fundamentals into her daughters.
Today the indoor courts look disheveled. The nets are frayed and sagging, the surface obscured by dirt and debris. Yulia grabs a broom and begins to sweep. "I've been complaining to the authorities for years," she says of the facility's condition. "They hear but don't listen."
Yulia likes people to pay attention. She's a woman who takes herself seriously. She was serious when she won nine Bulgarian women's titles between 1962 and 76. She was serious when, with little money and little help from Bulgarian officials, she turned her girls into the country's first pro tennis players. She was serious when, at age 43, she played doubles in the 1987 Federation Cup because chintzy Bulgarian officials wouldn't send an extra player to back up Manuela and Katerina.
She's serious when she talks about those days now. Serious but not dull.
"When I hear American mothers complain that the U.S. Tennis Association does nothing for their children, I cannot help but laugh," Yulia says. Her hands move constantly, clenching and spreading, almost as fluent with meaning as her words. "Just being American is a tremendous advantage for them."
For the Maleevas, simple things like obtaining an exit visa can be difficult. The Bulgarian bureaucracy used to be so serpentine that the Maleevas often didn't know if they could board their plane until a few hours before takeoff. "The struggle made my girls stronger," she says. "It gave them a sense of who they are. Now no one can hurt them."
Yulia isn't an irksome tennis parent who plotted her kids' careers before they left the womb. "I never even considered making them into pros," she says. "It happened almost in spite of me."
While Yulia practiced, the girls sat around building castles in the red clay. Manuela remembers eating worms she found in puddles on the court and, later, devouring Yulia's lessons. In 1979 Yulia took Manuela to Miami for the Orange Bowl championships, the world's premier junior tournament. Their expenses were covered by Yulia's father, who, because he was of Armenian descent, was able to emigrate to Florida in 1965.
In 1981 Manuela won the 14-and-under title. But she never felt accepted by the public. "I was treated like I had come from Jupiter," Manuela says.
Her opponent the following year in the 18-and-under final was Carling Bassett, whose father, John, owned the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. Frustrated by one line call after another, Manuela lost the first set and her composure. When one of her shots was called out on game point at 3-3 in the second, Manuela decided she had had it. As Yulia stormed out of the stands, Manuela walked off the court, into the locker room and out of Flamingo Park.
Yulia still keeps a memento from the tournament: a photo of herself and Manuela snapped by John Bassett. He gave it to her in 1986, a few months before he died of brain cancer. "After all that happened, why on earth would he want me to have the picture?" says Yulia, her voice cracking. "I feel so guilty." She excuses herself and walks away.
Tears flow quite freely from the Maleevas—on the court, in the locker room and sometimes even during press conferences. Some players find the trait unbecoming. Martina Navratilova, who has lost to Manuela twice this year, recently praised Magdalena by saying, "She seems to be much more American than her sisters. She doesn't walk around like she's losing when she's winning."
In her 1986 book, Passing Shots, Pam Shriver painted Manuela and Katerina as gray eminences from some murky Eastern European country. She tagged one Boo and the other Hoo and mocked them for appearing mopey. Their baleful looks, says Shriver, remind her of basset hounds.
Shriver's mouth, laments Manuela, is much bigger than her game. "I'm not an actress," she says. "I play my game, not a role. I have to concentrate too much to think about smiling."
None of the Maleevas are much taken with their U.S. colleagues on the tour. They often find them rude, shallow, insincere. "The Americans cry privately, away from the press," says Yulia.
The two older sisters present a striking contrast. Manuela is gracious and shy, Katerina emotional and outgoing. "They have the same feelings, but react differently," says Manuela's husband, Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Fragniere. "Katya sees problems. Manuela sees only solutions."
The term sibling rivalry has no equivalent in Bulgarian. "Katerina and I are best friends," says Manuela. "The only way we survived in this zoo was to stay close."
They even enter different tournaments to avoid facing each other. "When I play Katerina, I pull harder for her than I do mc," says Manuela. "I've won all our matches, but I've suffered every time."
Magdalena is the most insouciant Maleeva. Losing doesn't make her frown, much less sob. "Sometimes I want to slap her for not crying," Yulia says. Magdalena shrugs. "I don't see any reason to cry when I lose," she says. "There are much more serious things, like war." She has festooned her T-shirt with peacenik slogans—SAVE THE EARTH, NON-COMMUNIST—and interlocking U.S. and Soviet flags.
Magdalena was six when she began attending tennis banquets with her sisters. By seven she knew all the world capitals. "Geography is my favorite subject," she says. She proudly displays a map on which she has charted the routes of noted explorers like Marco Polo and Ernest Shackleton.
Like Columbus, Magdalena wants to discover America, but Yulia is against living anywhere but in Sofia. "It's not safe!" says Yulia of the U.S. "Children are kidnapped. In Bulgaria, no children are ever stolen."
"Well, not as many as in America," says Magdalena. "But it does happen."
"Maggie! There is not one stolen child in Bulgaria!"
"Yes, I can tell you there was such a child last year."
"All right," says Yulia, throwing up her hands. "Still, here theft is rare." That's because, except for windshield wipers, there's nothing to steal.
Although the Maleevas have hauled in more than $3 million in prize money, their parents have lived in the same apartment house for 20 years. "Everything is distributed by the government," says Yulia. "We are lucky even to have this place."
The concrete building is as solemn and sturdy as Lenin's tomb. When the Maleeva women returned from a recent trip abroad, they dined on grilled cheese sandwiches made with feta that George had hoarded. An electronics professor at the University of Sofia, he makes the equivalent of $50 a month, about average for a Bulgarian worker.
Manuela moved to Switzerland three years ago, after marrying Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois, a Swiss tennis coach. He has been remaking her game ever since. "Yulia taught her to go for every point and to run every ball down," he says. "Manuela, who is a very obedient girl, did."
That strategy worked well five years ago, when Manuela reached No. 3 on the computer. However, against today's stronger and more aggressive players, you can't just put the ball in play and expect to win. Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois's model was Mats Wilander, a baseliner who forced himself to serve and volley. "Here was a guy who became Number 1 in the world with absolutely no strokes," says Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois. "His game was built on will, concentration and work. Everything was in the head."
The six-hour-a-day conditioning program Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois devised for Manuela is so rigorous that a lot of decathletes wouldn't want to attempt it. The new, improved Manuela glides over the court with a hushed and practiced bustle. Against journeywoman Jo Durie at an exhibition this fall in the Canary Islands, she grey-hounded to the net at every opportunity, cutting loose with dapper bursts of exuberance. Leading 6-0, 5-0 at match point, she got reckless, daring Durie to try a crosscourt passing shot. Durie did, winning the point and eventually the game. The crowd cheered wildly. Even Manuela cracked a smile. "I almost didn't want to beat Jo love-love," she later said. "I know the feeling."
Navratilova bageled Manuela in the quarterfinals of the 1989 U.S. Open. They met again this year in the round of 16. Down match point, Navratilova hit a forehand that struck the tape. The ball straddled the net for a tantalizing moment before dropping back on Navratilova's side. Gaping in disbelief, Manuela jumped four times, pumped her fists in the air and broke into a face-splitting grin. "I thought, It's not possible," says Manuela, who lost all eight of her previous matches to Navratilova. "For once, a Bulgarian needs a little bit of luck and gets it."
Bulgaria will need more than luck to survive its current crisis. Thousands of the Maleevas' countrymen have fled the borders since travel restrictions were eased last year. "This prison has been closed for so long that they could not wait to see the world," says Yulia. "People are more free to speak. But the economy is a disaster. If this lasts a few more months, there will be no more human life."
The Maleevas support the Union of Democratic Forces, the main opposition group to the governing Bulgarian Socialist Party. Before the elections in June, Katerina played an exhibition in Sofia to raise funds for the Union. She and Yulia were upbraided by officials in the sports ministry, who accused them of mixing athletics and politics. "Don't accuse us," snapped Yulia. "You're the ones who put Communist patches on the warmup suits we wore at the last Summer Olympics."
On this cold, dank day, the patch is missing from Yulia's Olympic jacket. "I ripped it off," she says gleefully. She's standing in Sofia's Lenin Square, surrounded by heavy, steepled buildings. Down the street is the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party, gutted in August by a mysterious fire.
She turns a critical eye on the massive statue of Lenin looming above her. The memorial once seemed as immutable as the old regime. Now, spattered with red paint, it looks a little silly and forlorn. "If I had some dynamite," says Yulia, "I'd blow it into little pieces."
But despite everything—the shortages, the delays, the abuse—Yulia won't even consider leaving their home in Bulgaria. 'Until recently, life here was quite decent," she says. "The easiest thing would De for us to grab our belongings and go. But as long as we stay and continue to cause problems, those in power will not be at ease. I don't know if any of them really care about me. Still, it's home, and we belong here. That's a great feeling—to know that you belong."