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"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."