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On Tennis Tour, Travel Grinds Out the Glamour

January 13, 1985|DENIS COLLINS | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — To her friends back home in Bulgaria, the life Manuela Maleeva leads as a professional tennis player is busy with champagne breakfasts, late-night dates and a few lucrative hours of serve and volley between. A life, in short, to be envied. But for Maleeva, a 17-year-old who has been chasing success on the international tour since she was 14, life as a tennis star is "something that I hate really. "I'm getting really tired," said Maleeva, who had just won her first match in the $150,000 Virginia Slims tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center, yet looked as if she'd just lost her dog. "I made a trip from Brazil to Australia that took three days. I thought I would be dead." Even for the women at the top of the tennis tour, the ones who wear mink and lynx and earn as much or more than Maleeva's $300,000 last year, life on the circuit can be as much grind as glamour. Between the first serve of this year's tour last week in Florida and the final one next December in Australia, the approximately 75 women who travel the circuit will play in some of the world's most beautiful cities that they will never see. "It's not like you have time to wander off and go sightseeing," says Debbie Spence, a 17-year-old from San Jose, Calif., who has been on the tour one year, long enough to lose her initial wide-eyed breathlessness. "I'm not going to see anything in Washington." Spence won her first tournament one month after turning pro. She has not won since. Like all the players on tour, she must pay her own expenses, from air fare to hotels and meals. Because Spence's mother, Francine, accompanies her, those expenses are double. And you get no discount for trying hard. The job of support crew, Francine Spence has discovered, is a delicate one. You may be cheerful in victory, but never gloomy in defeat. And you may be as nervous during a match as you like, as long as it doesn't show. "Debbie said I was making her nervous whenever she'd look at me in the stands," said her mother. "So now I have to pretend that I'm calm." Since arriving in Washington Sunday, the most exciting thing Debbie Spence has done off the court was to see the movie "Beverly Hills Cop." Like most women on the tour, Spence spends her time on the court or in her hotel. For this tournament, that means the Washington Marriott. The night life there, according to players, rarely gets higher-pitched than playing games of Boggle and Trivial Pursuit or watching television. "The tour certainly does have its aspects of glamour," says Andrea Leand, a 20-year-old from suburban Baltimore who has followed the circuit for three years but plans to return this spring to school at Princeton. "You stay in the nicest hotels, you meet people and never know what opportunities might happen. "On the other hand, there is nothing constant in your life. You're traveling out of a suitcase, you get stuck in a hotel by yourself and can't find any time off. It can be very lonely. And you really don't have any good friends. Everybody is out for themselves. That's the reality." "If you can't afford to travel, you can't afford to play professional tennis," says Elizabeth Smylie, a 24-year-old pro from Australia who has been following the circuit since she was 17. Now married, Smylie estimates it costs nearly $40,000 a year for her and her husband to tour. Last year, with earnings of $100,000, the investment paid off. As difficult as the tour might sometimes be, not many abandon the gold-paved way by choice. When the occasional burnout, such as 19-year-old Andrea Jaeger, quits while still earning a few hundred thousand dollars a year, it seems an aberration. More often players hang on for as long as their skills allow, and a little longer. "For a while I was embarrassed about it, being the oldest player on the tour," concedes 32-year-old Pam Teeguarden, a 14-year tour veteran. "But then I figured, 'How many people would like to be where I am and can't?' I've come to grips with it. Though I don't think a lot of the girls have a ton of respect for me." Teeguarden, who won only $16,000 last year, joined the tour when the men and women traveled the same circuit, often staying in the same hotels. "Things were a lot more fun in the old days. The men and women went out together almost every night. A lot of men players married women players," says Teeguarden. But she does not miss all the aspects of those early years. "The women were not treated equally. The men might take you out to dinner at night, but during the day they wouldn't hesitate to kick you off a practice court so they could play." Players competing for million-dollar payoffs say they can't afford to have too much fun. If you want to beat Martina Navratilova, you have to train the way she does. That means lifting weights and running sprints all year, and sticking to a low-fat diet that does not include bar snacks. "As more women play on the tour for more money it becomes much more competitive. You can't just be a good tennis player any more, you have to be a great athlete," says Smylie, who is both. "It's becoming less fun and more of a business." Ten years ago, most women traveled the circuit alone, and depended on other professionals for companionship. Today there are only a handful of women who do not bring a coach, parent, or friend along. One of those who travels alone, Sabrina Goles of Yugoslavia, says her solitary status is not by choice. "I should have someone traveling with me," said Goles, 21. "You get homesick. Sometimes you get bored. But you have all the expenses and you are not making much money." Money is no excuse for Maleeva. Since joining the tour three years ago, she has jumped from obscurity to sixth in the world. She is coached by her mother, Yulia, a former Bulgarian national champion who has two other tennis-playing daughters, Katerina and Magdalena, she must tend to. This week, mother is with 15-year-old Katerina at a tournament in Denver. "I have my books with me," says Maleeva, explaining how she fills the hours between practice and play. "I'm trying to study sometimes. My friends at home think this is so exciting. I try to tell them it is not. But they don't understand. "I'm trying," Maleeva said with a sad shrug, "to get used to the travel."

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