Maleeva Retires from Sony Ericsson WTA Tour
Published October 19, 2005 12:00
"I have really enjoyed my time in tennis. I want to thank everyone, especially the fans, for their support over the years, and I look forward to my new life beyond tennis."
ZÜRICH, Switzerland - It was the end of two eras at the Zürich Open, as Magdalena Maleeva played the last Sony Ericsson WTA Tour match of her career, shaking hands at the net one last time after losing to Patty Schnyder. The defeat capped Maleeva's own incredible 16-year run in women's professional tennis, in which she overcame the adversity of growing up in a country where tennis was virtually non-existent, made her way into the sport's elite, and then fought her way back into that elite after a long battle with a career-threatening right shoulder injury. The defeat also closed the book on an historic 26-year run by the Maleeva name, which she had been carrying since older sisters Manuela (a former world No.3) and Katerina (a former No.6) retired from the sport themselves during the 1990s.
The unlikely success story of the Maleeva sisters began in Sofia, Bulgaria, where they were raised and taught to play tennis by their mother Julia, who was a nine-time former Bulgarian tennis champion. Despite growing up in a country where tennis trailed severely in both popularity and funding to the likes of soccer, gymnastics, weightlifting and other Olympic sports, the sisters would all eventually enjoy success on the professional circuit, an amazing achievement considering the country had previously been non-existent on the tennis map. Julia Berberyan-Maleeva was often referred to as the mother of all Bulgarian tennis.
Magdalena, the youngest of the three sisters, was the last to turn professional, doing so after her 14th birthday in April 1989. Her apparent talent for the game, already-mature court sense and some sound results early on warranted a Most Impressive Newcomer Award from the Tour in 1990, and soon afterwards she made her way into world's Top 50. She truly announced her presence in the summer of 1992, winning her first singles title at San Marino before going on a tear at the US Open, handing Martina Navratilova her earliest Grand Slam exit in 16 years with a second round win, and eventually reaching her first major quarterfinal at the event. With her two older sisters already holding career victories over Navratilova, Maleeva's second round win prompted the 18-time Grand Slam champion to humorously say "At least I didn't lose to the mother."
Maleeva continued to step out of her older sisters' shadows in 1993 with some solid tournament results, winning 38 matches (the most wins on a single season in her career), and also receiving the coveted Most Improved Player Award from the Tour. However, 1993 also featured one of Maleeva's lows, as she was forced to witness first-hand one of the biggest tragedies in sports history, being on the other side of the net from Monica Seles during the former world No.1's infamous stabbing incident at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany.
"People unfortunately will always remember me for being the youngest sister, or the girl who was on court when Monica was stabbed," Maleeva said. "This was a dreadful and stupid thing that happened."
Maleeva continued on in the hopes that she could shake those tags by making even greater strides in her results, and had what were arguably the best years of her career in 1994, 1995 and 1996, capturing five more titles (the biggest of which came here in Zürich in 1994) and spending a total of 60 weeks in the Top 10, including one at No.4, her best ranking, during the week of January 29, 1996.
Maleeva's career hit a crossroads in the summer of 1998, as she was sidelined from the Tour (at the time indefinitely) after undergoing surgery for a career-threatening right shoulder injury. Despite the lay-off and the challenge of gathering the courage to fight her way back into the game, the Bulgarian did not give up on her passion, and made a successful return to action nearly a year later in 1999, winning the first two titles of her comeback at Pattaya City and an ITF Women's Circuit event at the end of the year. That was only the beginning, as she would go on to reassert herself as one of the game's elite in the years ahead, capturing three more titles (including an inspiring run to the prestigious Moscow title in 2002) and making it all the way back up to No.11 in the rankings, twice in 2003 being just one match away from re-entering the Top 10.
"I am most proud of my win in Moscow in 2002 beating Venus, Mauresmo and Davenport," Maleeva added. "And I'm very proud of making the decision to come back after my shoulder surgery. I could easily have called it quits, but I worked very hard, and winning that first tournament in Pattaya after coming back meant a lot to me too. The wins later in my career were much more satisfying than early on."
Maleeva is perhaps best known for raising her game when facing the sport's biggest names, notching wins in her career against former world No.1s Navratilova, Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin and Amélie Mauresmo, as well as former Grand Slam champions Gabriela Sabatini, Conchita Martínez, Mary Pierce, Iva Majoli, Jana Novotna and Anastasia Myskina.
The transition to retirement will probably be a smooth one for Maleeva. Over the last few years, the 30-year-old has already become involved in several projects and initiatives in Sofia that are sure to keep her busy after her retirement. She co-owns Capasca, a clothing company that was formed in 2003, opened its first store in 2004, and is on the verge of further expansion. She is also involved with Gorichka, a tree-planting initiative, and along with her family founded and owns The Maleeva Tennis Club, which opened its doors earlier in 2005 and is doing extremely well. Last but not least, she has been married for over a year to husband Lubo, and is planning on spending more time enjoying life with him.
The imminent retirement means that for the first time in 26 years, a Maleeva will not be competing on the Tour. Magdalena's older sisters, Manuela and Katerina, also enjoyed many successes on the professional circuit throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, both spending a long time in the Top 10 and winning a combined 29 titles between them. For one stretch, all three sisters were prominent players on the circuit, making history as the first sister trio to compete in the main draw of a Grand Slam, to be seeded at the same Grand Slam, to all reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam and to be ranked in the Top 15 simultaneously, feats that have yet to be repeated. There have been other sister acts in tennis history, most notably the recent successes of the Williams sisters, but never before were there sisters who came out of a nation averse to the sport to find success, and a trio of sisters nonetheless.
"You know what? I don't think any of us appreciated it at the time, which is a shame, but now looking back we can be really proud of ourselves. This was a unique situation, which will probably never be repeated. It's an amazing achievement when you think next year will be the first time in over 26 years a Maleeva will not be on the rankings."