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TENNIS | LISA DILLMAN

Woman of Substance Triumphs Over Style

September 06, 2005|LISA DILLMAN

NEW YORK — The search party for an adult at the U.S. Open made its way through the wardrobe closet, past the bling and perfume lines and wound up in a suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Women of substance often get overlooked in favor of the divas on the WTA Tour.

But they are out there. Really.

One of them was in an Octagon management firm skybox, sharing part of an afternoon with three reporters. This was Magdalena Maleeva's 14th and final U.S. Open, and the youngest of the three Bulgarian tennis-playing sisters is close to a wrap on a career that took her to a No. 4 ranking in 1996 and 10 career singles titles.

But the insular tour lifestyle never turned her into a captive. Maleeva, who turned 30 in April, kept her brain switched on and kept reading Kurt Vonnegut.

"My parents did a great job of making me a pretty normal human being who is aware of what is happening around," she said. "The danger with tennis is that you tend to live in a very close environment. It's almost like a traveling circus, moving from city to city and you really tend to be unaware of what is happening around you.

"You have to be a little bit like that. But you don't have to be so close."

Maleeva's life changed too when she met her boyfriend, Lubo Nokov, when she was 19. They were married last year. She participated in the movement against communism in Bulgaria, and more recently has been part of an initiative for planting trees in Sofia.

There was discussion about the horrific impact of Hurricane Katrina. Closer to her home, Maleeva spoke about the severe flooding this summer in Bulgaria, which killed at least 25 people and, she said, has had an impact on more than 2 million people and created a devastating impact on the infrastructure.

Maleeva's mother and first coach, Yulia Berberian, could be called the mother of Bulgarian tennis, as all three of her daughters -- Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena -- made the top 10. It was gut-wrenching whenever the sisters were forced to play one another, and Magdalena remembered how awful it was facing Katerina in the first round at the U.S. Open in 1990.

It never got any easier. She lost all four times to Katerina on the tour.

"It was terrible," Maleeva said. "Nobody liked it. I think it's terrible for Venus and Serena [Williams]. I feel for them. Especially to play such an early round."

The Maleevas paved the way for the likes of brash Bulgarian teenager Sesil Karatantcheva, a quarterfinalist at the French Open. Perhaps there will be others now that the Maleevas have built and are running a tennis club in Sofia.

Yulia was nine-time national champion and in later years went into politics. Magdalena followed her mother into sport but drew the line there.

"I follow very closely what happens in Bulgaria and what's happening in the world," she said. "I would like to be a very active citizen. I'm not planning to go into politics because it seems like it is a very dirty business."

Going back to tennis, she was asked about the emphasis on style over substance.

"It is like that," Maleeva said. "This is the society we live in. People pay attention to your physical appearance. Because tennis is very popular, players have become celebrities. It's unfortunate for the game because I think the game is at a higher level than ever.

"But for me, it's not only in tennis. It's in everything else. It really bothers me that there are some terrible actors, but they are celebrities and a lot of other people get ignored and they're much better. That's the society we live in."

Foster Mom

Kim Clijsters' decision to contribute $25,000 to the Red Cross for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts is not an isolated act of charity, and it's tangible, unlike Serena Williams' pledge of $100 an ace.

She got involved when an orphanage in India was destroyed by the tsunami last December, becoming the children's "godmother," and smiled when it was suggested she now has 60 kids.

"They're starting to rebuild everything," she said. "We're trying to help out. ... I told my dad, 'Maybe there's something we can do and maybe I can help in a way. We can help with the orphanage.' I think that was a great idea."

Notable

U.S. Tennis Assn. President Franklin Johnson said his organization, at a board meeting Friday, decided to proceed with performing due diligence regarding a potential investment of the Indian Wells tournament.

"We're going ahead on exploring it," Johnson said. "We're not there yet. We want to make sure it's a sound investment."

The figure to help buy out IMG, which owns 50% of the tournament, could be $6 million, two yearly increments of $3 million. There are 15 board members, including Johnson, and the issue could be decided in late October in San Antonio.

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