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"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.
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.