Thursday, February 9, 2023

Elite teenage talent emerging in Bulgaria

Guest contributor Gordon Kerr looks back at a trip to Bulgaria that left him contemplating the social and human benefits of our beloved sport.

Having a fledgling business in Bulgarian capital Sofia was challenging even before the pandemic; the language is difficult and the business culture is different (big companies prefer to pay debt off rather than to re-leverage). Once lockdown came, times got even tougher and I occasionally considered reaching for the whisky and loaded revolver!

I made my first post lockdown visit to Bulgaria on 22 June and things have since picked up to the extent that I have commuted to Sofia every week this past month. My business partner, Slavyanka Stoykova, chairs the leading association of women entrepreneurs in Bulgaria (‘Selena’) and, to support her in this, I decided to travel again late on 23 November to attend Selena’s ‘Women’s Entrepreneurship Day’ at the luxurious five-star Millennium Hotel.

As a keen squash player, I leave kit and a racket permanently in my Sofia office, and I had booked a lesson with head pro (and Bulgaria’s no.1) Stelian Stankov at Sofia Squash on Friday 25 November.

The previous week, I had visited Stelian at the club because I am arranging a spring squash tour here on behalf of the London-based arm of the worldwide Escorts squash club. I had no plans to play on that occasion, but I’d bumped into another pro, Stoyan Djilev and as we were chatting he mentioned that his 14-year-old daughter Ciana had entered the European Junior Championships girls’ U19 event during the summer at the famous Hasta La Vista club in Wroclaw, which I know very well.

My jaw hit the floor when he told me that Ciana – born June 2008 – had won the event despite being five years younger than the age limit! Stoyan was modest, explaining that different European countries came out of lockdown later than others and that entries did not include all the strongest names, but nonetheless, Ciana is almost certainly top 10 in Europe U19 and without question the no.1 European girl at U15 level.

In the same chat over a cup of tea I was informed that another 14-year-old girl, even younger (born 4 November 2008) has emerged at the same club and is Europe’s no.4 girl U15, Sofia Georgieva.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I walked into the club for my lesson with Stelian at 13.00 on Friday 25th, expecting to have a session of drop and drive, when Stoyan introduced me to his daughter Ciana who was there for a lesson with her father.

Of course, I asked her father if I could hit with her and both pros graciously agreed to let us play one game (see pic below). After the third shot in the warm-up, I was scared of getting hammered 11 love, so good is her technique and so accurate her angles and drives to the corners.

Of course, she ran me ragged for about 20 minutes, but how enjoyable to play a game with such a talent. Moreover, after we both had finished our subsequent lessons and I had showered, she was exceptionally polite and gracious and thanked me for the game.

As I was preparing to leave the club and return to the hotel, Sofia Georgieva walked in for her lesson. Stelian immediately introduced me; I had already provisionally booked another session on the Saturday afternoon, and it was quickly arranged that I would play Sofia, this time for a whole hour, at 15.00 in front of her coaches.

Needless to say, I took it easy on the sherbets on Friday evening. On Saturday afternoon at 4pm, after having been run all over the court by Sofia (but this time for much longer than by Ciana), I was completely exhausted.

But I also felt privileged to be in the company of these wonderful people in a club 1500 miles from home, all of whom make me feel so warm and welcome every time I visit. I reflected on what a fantastic sport squash is, and what a beneficial effect it has on human character and social relations.

Again, after I recovered, young Sofia was the model of politeness and we chatted for a while as we warmed down. She told me that she hated doing court sprints which Stelian usually mandates after her training sessions. But on this occasion, Stelian thought she had played so well that, as a reward she was only required to do 10 minutes skipping (see main photo of Sofia in red with Stelian).

We discussed her favourite school subjects, maths or English language, and she warmly thanked me for playing. Bilyana Martsenkova, the organised and welcoming club manageress, made me a delicious pot of green tea, and as I sipped my drink, I reflected on how lucky I am to play our amazing sport of squash.

In what other walk of life would a 63-year-old grandfather have two so enjoyable, unplanned and quite unexpected afternoons playing athletic sport with two world-beating 14-year-olds?

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