MONTRÉAL, Canada – Sometimes all it takes in tennis is a change in the weather, something former World No.35 Sesil Karatantcheva – she of the thunderous return – knows all too well.
“It’s very funny because first of all, I wasn’t supposed to play here,” the 28-year-old wryly admitted after qualifying for the 2018 Rogers Cup and renewing a teenaged rivalry with former World No.1 Maria Sharapova. “I’d already entered a $60K in Landisville, Pennsylvania, but I checked the entry list for Montréal, and saw I about 17 players out. My husband Georgi thought I should sign in anyway, since we were staying in New York, and it’s a six-hour drive. I couldn’t believe it, but I got in.
"I told my husband, ‘Pack your stuff, because we need to go now.’”
Ranked No.228, Karatantcheva had won just one match since May, falling in the opening round of back-to-back WTA qualifying appearances earlier this summer. Still the outspoken veteran, who splits her time between Sofia and Las Vegas, isn’t opposed to being an underdog, and followed the lead from her friend’s house in Queens.
“We got on the road and I saw I was supposed to play Magda Linette, but I knew she was in Washington DC, and her match had been postponed because of the rain. I thought I’d get a walkover but I woke up in the morning and saw that not only was I playing an alternate, but I was the only one who didn’t get a walkover. I went into the supervisor’s office joking with them, wanting to know how I got the short straw. It ended up being good practice, allowing me to get used to the conditions.”
Instead of World No.61 Linette, she drew doubles specialist Demi Schuurs, playing just her third singles match in three years. Still armed with a textbook backhand technique, Karatantcheva blizted the Dutch veteran and battled past Aussie Lizette Cabrera to make her first WTA main draw since the BRD Bucharest Open in 2017.
“I’m just in a moment here; I’m happy to grind it out for a couple matches. I’m going to be 29 in…”
She pauses to check the date on her phone.
“…Three days! That’s a bit depressing, having in mind that I’ve been through so much. I’m ranked around No.225; that’s not the dream ranking for my age, but I keep reading all these mature books, self-help guides. They say that 29 is the best age for an athlete, so I’m still waiting for that energy to come through and my mojo to come back. I’m settled, though. I’m married and family life treats me good. Tennis is a game and it’s good that a lot of players realize that it’s not so live or die. Take it for the best it is, and if it doesn’t, life keeps moving.”
Karatantcheva wed longtime fiancé and former footballer Georgi Dolmov last fall, shortly after winning her first title of any kind in six years at home in Vegas. Acting as her fitness coach, Dolmov is her one-man entourage, traveling with her to tournaments and keeping her company in the buzzing player lounge before our interview. For the gregarious Bulgarian, it’s no surprise she considers communication key to a successful partnership.
“If you would have asked me five years ago, I never would have thought of myself as a marrying girl. My parents are divorced, so I never had much faith in the institution of marriage, but things change.
“It’s very nice to meet someone that understands, but most of all, someone you can talk to. In the 21st century, you see so many divorces and flashy marriages, but if you can’t talk to the person, it’s really a waste of time. Everything else goes away, chemistry wears off, but if you can communicate with another person who’s your friend at the core, that can help you through good and bad.
“I really hope we’re going to last. I don’t want to be one of those people who blindly say we’ll last forever, because there are no guarantees. I hope we’ll be that exception, especially now in today’s times, where the percentage keeps dropping and people think they’ll get a divorce like it’s going to McDonald’s.”
Karatantcheva delivers these gems – a mix of new-age philosophy and street-smart common sense – with an equally impressive alacrity, speaking with a silver-pierced tongue that that’s lost none of its sharpness since the time she famously challenged Sharapova to a trash-talk session.
“I was 14, and I’m going to pay for this forever!” she joked back in 2016. “I said what I thought at the time, and any 14-year-old would talk like that. Ask one today if they think they could beat Messi in soccer, they’d probably say, ‘Yeah, I’ll kill him!’”
The pair played their first three matches as teenagers, with Karatantcheva taking the opening set of their BNP Paribas Open encounter back in 2004 before both careers dramatically diverged, only to meet again. Their encounter under the Court Central lights will be the first in over eight years.
“It crosses your mind,” she said of retirement on Sunday afternoon. “You think about how you’ve given your best over these years. I never got back to where I was, but I did have some good years; I broke back into the Top 100, had some good Slam appearances, and had some good wins. Maybe that’s it and it’s time to start a new chapter, but my husband always tells me that the other half of life is so long, and I’m still so young, especially with how tennis is going with the age groups getting higher.
“Knock on wood, my body is good. My mind can get tired from the non-stop circle, but I’m still hanging in there. It’ll probably be a decision where it hits me in the right moment.”
Still thunderous after all these years, the qualifier ends the interview with an enthusiastic tour through her iTunes playlists. She shows off an expansive taste far wider than the Spice Girls hits that consumed her childhood, and explains her raison d’être as only a fellow millennial can: with a meme.
“Life is trying to send you off a cliff, but music is there to catch you.”