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With new academy, unbreakable Sesil Karatantcheva plots Bulgarian revolution for next generation
The former world No. 35 has been off the court since 2019, and is eager to channel her rich academy history into a place of her own.
Published Jun 21, 2021
Sesil Karatantcheva lives her life on shuffle, a song always stuck in her head. The former world No. 35 and self-proclaimed “music junkie” recalls watching TV when “That’s Life,” by Frank Sinatra, played on a commercial. It’s been on her iPhone ever since.
“I listen to everything,” Karatantcheva told me, “from classical Mozart to heavy metal. I can listen to R&B or Frank Sinatra from the 40s, 50s, 60s. Music has that vibration and is able to bring certain energies out of you. I think the world has survived to this point only because music was invented.”
The Bulgarian famously picked up a strikingly un-accented English by playing the Spice Girls on repeat, and is currently preparing to turn her extraordinary playlist into the soundtrack for her eponymous tennis academy, set to open in Sofia.
“We’ve installed an amazing sound system, so every court has stereo speakers,” she said. “I’m already picturing the mixes that’ll take players from the morning through the end of each day.”
Karatantcheva’s academy upbringing was critical to her development as a young phenom, and brought her to the United States at an early age to train under Nick Bollettieri. Approached by an investor aiming to build a multi-sport complex, the 2005 Roland Garros quarterfinalist has plans for a comprehensive regime, one that will feature more social elements alongside a nascent tournament training program for aspiring professionals and college athletes.
“I’m an academy kid, and I got to be one in the States, so I got to see the best," she says. "I remember at Bollettieri, we would have a schedule with all kinds of training sessions, and even later on in Europe, I did camps with Patrick Mouratoglou that had a similar intensity. Those experiences taught me a lot and gave me the knowledge and training methods I hope to impart. They’ve helped hone my vision for what I want to do now and how I want my want academy to function.
“For the moment, mine won’t exactly run like a Bollettieri or Mouratglou because we won’t have full-time boarding when we open, although we hope to slowly move in that direction. We’re starting very small, and six courts may not be Bollettieri-size, but for Europe, it’ll be quite comfortable, and we do have space to expand. It’s a good thing it’s in the capital, because it should help make us a destination for those looking in the future.”
I think the world has survived to this point only because music was invented. Sesil Karatantcheva
Bulgaria has a rich tennis history that began in the early 1990s with the Maleeva sisters and continues with Karatantcheva’s contemporary Tsvetana Pironkova, who returned from her own hiatus to reach the 2020 US Open quarterfinals after having a child in 2018. With only one Bulgarian junior currently ranked in ITF’s Top 100, Karatantcheva dreams of cultivating her country’s next generation.
“I really hope it’s a launch pad for Bulgarian tennis because our country has so many talented kids, and not only in tennis, which becomes its own problem because there haven’t always been good enough facilities or enough professional coaches, leading a lot of kids to abandon tennis before truly developing their talents.
“My goal is that I can gather a team of professionals and give them everything they need, from the technical aspect, to guidance, psychology and mental health.”
The 31-year-old, who splits her time between Sofia and a property in Las Vegas she shares with husband and former footballer Georgi Dolmov, has undeniably encountered the best and worst a tennis career can offer—from her time as a junior prodigy and rival to Maria Sharapova, to working her way out of the proverbial wilderness and back into the Top 100 after a teen pregnancy triggered a positive test for nandrolone, forcing her off tour for two years. A product of traditional sensibilities and new-age wisdom, Karatantcheva effortlessly combines the two with a disarmingly casual delivery.
“What can I tell you? I always envisioned myself as being able to mentor young kids, give them good advice and lead them through my experiences while protecting them from bad things," she says. "I think any tennis player can teach technical and tactical elements; it doesn’t matter if you’re Top 100 or Top 500. But the little differences that separate the good from bad and the great from the very good is really that mental aspect, to be able to, in those tight moments, be able to perform as you train, and to be able to employ the tactics you planned.
“That’s why I like the word, ‘mentoring,’ because the experience that each professional player has, especially when they’ve been to the level of a Grand Slam and have had to deal with all the pressure of matches on big stadium courts, and having to play big names in tennis—that experience is really priceless, and all you can do is pass it along and help them understand it as best you can. If you can prepare and develop them mentally, it’s even more important than what you can do with them physically or technically.”
Ironically, it was a physical struggle—an inflammation known as “golfer’s elbow”—that initially sidelined Karatantcheva after Wimbledon in 2019 and made her available to launch this new venture, and she remains unsure of how she'll return to tournaments: as a player, or as a coach.
I really hope it’s a launch pad for Bulgarian tennis because our country has so many talented kids...there haven’t always been good enough facilities or enough professional coaches, leading a lot of kids to abandon tennis before truly developing their talents. Sesil Karatantcheva
“I took a break to try and fix myself, and just when I was starting to get back in shape, the pandemic happened. We started to get a few cases in Bulgaria and everything started to close here around February. My husband and I turned our garage into a gym because there was nowhere to work out, but we did what we could. A lot of people had things much worse, so I’m not complaining at all.
“Once everything started getting back on track, my motivation just wasn’t there as much. The break gave me a calmness to be home, and to enjoy a more basic daily life. People will say I might get sick of it, but I really love waking up in the same bed, to drink my tea in the same cup every morning, watching the TV in the same living room! It was all just very normal, things people take for granted, but when you’ve been on the road for so long and you live a certain lifestyle, you notice things someone else might not. For me, it was just really nice and it still is."
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Might Karatantcheva's academy ambitions mark the end of her time on tour?
“I knew you were going to ask me,” the ever-affable Karatantcheva accurately predicts. “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m not saying it’s the end, but I’m kind of neutral. Whatever fate has in store, and whatever the cards show for me, I guess. I’m going to go with the flow.”
And so, for Sesil Karatantcheva, the beat goes on.