“I’ll be back. And my return will be thunderous!”
Ah, the famous “last words” of Sesil Karatantcheva.
Before Eugenie Bouchard, there was another blonde, braid-wearing teenager who talked like she belonged. Bulgarian by birth, Karatantcheva was raised on the courts of the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, and had the backhand (and attitude) to match.
She stormed onto the
Sony Ericsson (RIP) WTA Tour in 2004, competing in her first WTA main draw at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California as a wildcard. Karatantcheva defeated former Wimbledon semifinalist Alexandra Stevenson and No. 17 seeded Spaniard Magüi Serna to set up a meeting with No. 16 seed, supposed Bollettieri sparring partner, and fellow teenaged wunderkind Maria Sharapova.
We all know what happened next. Karatantcheva told the press she’d “kick her ass off” in their third round match over a cancelled practice match in Bradenton. It didn’t end well for her. A year later, she defeated Venus Williams en route to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros at 16, only to twice test positive for the banned substance nandrolone. Karatantcheva told the ITF she was pregnant at the time of the test, but further tests debunked her claim when they came back negative. She was banned for two years in January of 2006, and it was then that she uttered her most famous words.
Unfortunately for Karatantcheva, the thunderstorm she forecast has been but a drizzle.
Karatantcheva has been unable, at this point, to rediscover anything close to the shotmaking (or swagger) that she had as a teenager, and at age 25, is now struggling to stay inside the top 200. Shortly after returning to the WTA Tour, she received Kazakh citizenship in 2009. Karatantcheva’s decision to switch nationalities was motivated by one reason – money.
“The contract with Kazakhstan is a matter of professionalism and survival,” her father and coach, Radoslav Karatantchev told Bulgarian Kanal 3 in 2009. “It’s a three-year contract which will give Sesil financial stability.”
While not the first in a slew of second and third-tier Eastern European players to take advantage of the hospitality (and $65,000 yearly stipend) offered by the former Soviet republic, she was certainly once the most promising. Earlier this week, however, Karatantcheva reportedly announced on Bulgarian television that she is in the process of splitting from Kazakhstan, and has a desire to once again represent the country of her birth.
“I am willing to compete for Bulgaria,” she said. “I think it’s time to go home. I am prepared and optimistic that I can do well for my country.”
Karatantcheva’s conundrum represents one that’s faced a host of professional tennis players over the past five years. Yaroslava Shvedova, Galina Voskoboeva and Yulia Putintseva, all of whom formerly played under the Russian flag, made the switch to represent Kazakhstan in international competition when it became apparent that Russia did not have the resources for them. The three ATP players in the top 500 who represent Kazakhstan were all also born elsewhere. When their neighbors to the south came calling, promising free coaching, paid expenses, and administrative support, the offer proved too good to pass up.
“I felt touched that somebody still believed in me,” Karatantcheva said in 2013. “I kind of felt like the black sheep. I kind of felt like the white sheep when they came to me.”
Five players in the WTA’s top 200 currently represent the country, but just one, World No. 39 Zarina Diyas, is ethnically Kazakh. To complete the circle of irony, very little of even Diyas’ tennis training came in her home country; she learned the game and spent much of her youth training in the Czech Republic.
It’s no secret that a professional tennis career is expensive, and the pressure to perform becomes even greater when one result can make or break a player’s year financially. Money is a great motivator, but what is there to play for when a payday is guaranteed? These players, effectively purchased by Kazakhstan, have the luxury of being able to focus solely on tennis – a luxury that others in a similar position in the rankings don’t have. But barring two quarterfinal showings at Roland Garros by Shvedova, they have yet to light up the sport’s biggest stages.
What, then, becomes of them? If, as Karatantcheva herself said, Kazakhstan “realizes that sportspeople are the best ambassadors for a country,” what happens when that success is slow to come, or doesn’t come at all? If quality is to be valued over quantity, one has to expect that the country’s resources, and seemingly immeasurable benevolence, are finite. At some point, it’s only natural that the Kazakhs must expect a return on their investment.
That hasn’t happened for Karatantcheva, who won just two matches in Grand Slam main draws and reached just one semifinal at a WTA tournament since switching flags. Now, she says, she’s ready to go home. But the question is: does she – or the others for that matter – really have a home to return to?