The good news about 17-year-old Manuela Maleeva is that she's in the finals of the Virginia Slims of Washington tennis tournament after her 7-6 (9-7), 6-1 victory over Kathy Rinaldi yesterday at George Washington University's Smith Center.
Maleeva, who won $326,000 last season, will probably be ranked No. 3 in the world the next time the big tennis computer spits out its wisdom. The Bulgarian Maleeva has risen so fast in women's tennis that, almost before most tennis fans know her, she's now taken seriously as being perhaps the best female player in the world whose name isn't Navratilova or Evert Lloyd.
The bad news is she doesn't seem to be enjoying the whole deal very much.
That is, unless you think a teen-age girl is having a ball when she breaks down sobbing and has to play the biggest points of a match in front of 4,000 fans with tears streaming down her face and her whole body shaking with sobs.
Maleeva, whose face looks like something out of Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," spent much of her match fighting back tears, muttering imprecations at herself and generally looking like a caricature of a sensitive teen-ager trying not to crack under the pressure of high-powered globe-hopping competition. Like Bobby Knight and John McEnroe, Maleeva might be one of those people whose faces say more than they actually feel. Maleeva's mother said yesterday, "She is just a very serious girl who takes tennis very seriously." Well, she looks miserable.
The good news about 17-year-old Kathy Rinaldi is that, even though she lost, she seemed delighted with her week in Washington and invigorated by the prospect of being a prominent, though maybe not great, player for years to come.
The bad news about Rinaldi . . .
Well, there isn't any right now. The child who at 14 was the youngest human to turn pro, the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon and the youngest quarterfinalist at the French Open -- all in 1981 -- seems to have survived the mind-mulching effects of the women's tennis tour. Kathy Rinaldi might have seen her ranking slip from 12th to 16th to 23rd over the past three years, but her game seems solid. And her head, too.
Maleeva and Rinaldi seem like such total opposites, such perfect foils for each other, that you want to resist the cliche of perceiving one as the sad little girl with the driven stage mother and the other as the sunshine blond from Florida who has chosen joy over glory. We could resist this hackneyed view a lot more easily if Maleeva and Rinaldi didn't reinforce it constantly.
The last time they met, a year ago in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Clay Courts, Maleeva also went into a crying jag when a call went against her. That time Rinaldi called out to the head official, "If she's going to cry about it, give her the point. It's not that big a deal."
Yesterday, trailing 3-0 in the first set, Rinaldi left the court holding her stomach, delaying the match for several minutes; she later explained that she had "to make a pit stop." This was excused under USTA Rule 30 which, with unintentional whimsy, explains the guidelines for "a genuine toilet emergency."
Maleeva's mother, nine-time Bulgarian champion Yulia Berberian Maleeva, speaking of the delay, said in fluent English after the match, "Some people will do anything to win."
Mother Maleeva also said she could understand her daughter's tears since "she should take any point to heart." However, she was pleased to see that "the worse the calls the better she plays." The mother said her first words to her daughter as she walked off the court with a $14,000 victory were, "You played very well but you should have won the first set more easily." This last comment seemed to further annoy Manuela, who walked away without reply.
If all Yulia Berberian's words seem to incriminate her as a typical stage mother, then it should be said that all her comments come out of a friendly, caring and sometimes puckish face that seems warmer than her words.
If Manuela Maleeva breaks down and cries on court, she also speaks English and Russian and some French, too. If she says, "Tennis is my life," it is also true that she is well on her way to being world famous and set for life. If she should be another teen-age tennis burnout like Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, who's to say the flame isn't worth the candle?
Actually, Manuela Maleeva is just the oldest of three tennis-playing Maleeva daughters who might fill our TV screens for years; the sporting bloodlines are strong since her father George (a college electronics teacher) played on the Bulgarian national basketball team.
Katerina, 15 and ranked 91st in the world, will play in her first important tour event -- a Slims satellite stop in Denver -- on Monday and her mother will be there, letting Manuela fend for herself against Martina Navratilova, who beat Zina Garrison, 6-1, 6-2, in the other semifinal. The youngest Maleeva, 11-year-old Magdalena, is also a budding star; she sat in the Smith Center stands yesterday watching everything.
At the end of the Maleeva-Rinaldi match, it would have been easy to mistake the winner and loser. When they met at the net, the 17-year-olds exchanged a few words. It was Rinaldi who was telling the joke, getting Maleeva to relax and even laugh so the crowd could see her smile.
"Oh, I just said, 'Good luck in the final,' " explained Rinaldi. "And, oh, yeah, she's coming down to (my home town of) Martin Downs, Fla., (next week) and I'm going to drive her to Key Biscayne (for an exhibition) . . . It takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive . . . I told her, 'You're gonna walk to Key Biscayne.' "
If Maleeva and Rinaldi do take that drive together, the two child veterans -- who together have already mined more than a million dollars out of the game in prize money and endorsements -- should have plenty to talk about.
Tennis, tears and the teen-age years. It's a rough combination. And an all too familiar one.