Family ties: The Maleeva family


Originally published on: 21/09/12 00:00

I feel very lucky to have met somebody who made tennis history, writes Patrick Mouratoglou. During a recent visit to Bulgaria where I was working with young ATP player Grigor Dimitrov, I spent an absorbing two-and-a-half hours with Youlia Berberian-Maleeva, now 68 years old. Youlia told me with passion how she raised her three daughters – Manuela, Magdalena and Katerina – without any financial means and in communist Bulgaria, and against all the odds steered them into the top 10 of the WTA singles rankings. Manuela, her eldest daughter, reached No.3 in the world, Magdalena No.4 and Katerina No.6 to make her arguably the most successful tennis parent ever.

Youlia enjoyed plenty of success on court herself. Born in Bulgaria in 1944, she won the Bulgarian Championships nine times. Incredibly, she clinched her eighth national trophy just 88 days after giving birth to Magdelena. During the 1970s, she decided to become a tennis coach and so began the family’s journey to the top of the international scene. Youlia is a fascinating character, with great humanity, but also the kind of toughness that comes from succeeding in the face of adversity. She endured years of travelling the world with no means of communication with the rest of her family other than a few letters that are now compiled in a fascinating book – the Maleevas’ story is unique.

Youlia still coaches to this day at her tennis academy – Maleeva Tennis Club – owned and run by the family in Sofia, Bulgaria. She revealed her philosophies on tennis and life, and shared her memories of guiding her three girls to the top of the game.

Patrick Mouratoglou: The role of parents is a controversial topic in tennis. What are your views?
Youlia Berberian-Maleeva: You can’t imagine tennis without the parents. I remember Graf’s father, and Seles’, and Hingis’ mother – they were all crazy. But I think I was one of the craziest! If I had known what I was going to go through, I would have probably never tried.

Why was your role so important?
Because no one could have cared as much as I did. They were my children, so it was vital. Somebody from outside wouldn’t have been able to bring that much care about the important things of the daily life, because no one could have been more motivated than I for my children.

What do you think your lasting legacy is in terms of the personalities your daughters have become?
Mostly I think I’ve given them a way to see life – whatever you do, always try to be the best you can. And if I’m proud today, it’s because I feel I did the best I could as a coach. When parents ask me how far their children can go, I answer, ‘I don’t know how far they can go, but what we can do is to make sure they become the best they can be.’

What were the foundations you tried to put in place in terms of their development as professional tennis players?
They built themselves, like I did, by fighting because we always had to deal with huge issues, as much financial as organisation, in a communist Bulgaria where everything was complicated. I’ve also taught them the value of working, one of the main ones in my opinion. My daughters have always been submitted to my strictness. In bed at 8pm, up at 6am and all the day is working, working. When I wasn’t with them, I was working as a coach in the club. We were always searching for perfection. Years later, when I wasn’t in charge anymore, Magdalena was working with a foreign trainer who couldn’t be in Sofia for financial reasons. She was training on her own, achieving the programme he had left her, until exhaustion. She broke my heart so I came to tell her to stop, that it was enough. She answered, ‘You taught me all my life that work was the only way and now you’re asking me to stop? I’m sorry, but I can’t.’ I also taught them how victory was important. This sentence says it all about my way of thinking: Winning is not everything, it is the only thing. Some time ago, a young girl from the club asked me to play with her. I told her I was going to kick her ass. She answered that she wanted to see. I won 6-0 6-0. Some adults then came to me asking why I didn’t let her win some points, one or two games. I told them, ‘Are you kidding? All my life I’ve fought to win every point I was playing. I just can’t do that!’

How important is it to win when you’re young?
It’s the tennis standard. That’s why you play. My daughters always won.

What are the basics of your conception of the game?
I have never accepted unforced errors. I love Bjorn Borg’s philosophy that one must put one more ball into the court than his rival.

That means defending is better than attacking?
Not at all. If you can make a winner, then go for it – but don’t miss it. Technique is essential because it allows safety. It also helped my daughters have more options when they were on court. They could do everything. My daughter, at 14 years old, destroyed Nick Bollettieri’s protégée Carling Bassett by playing a lot of winning drop shots. So it asks lots of strictness and patience. Tennis is patience and work.

To read the remainder of the interview, where Youlia admits she was 'mean' to her daughters when they lost and talks about her relationship with them today, pick up the August 2012 issue of tennishead magazine. To purchase the back issue or subscribe to the magazine, click here.


Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.