She turned 17 on Valentine’s Day, and Manuela Maleeva from Sofia, Bulgaria, is quickly becoming the next sweetheart of the women’s tennis tour. She may not have Tracy Austin’s pixie-cute smile or Carling Bassett’s golden locks, but Manuela has what really counts: an aggressive style of play that has carried her to a ranking of 24—impressive for a player who was virtually unknown a year ago. At the U.S. Women’s Indoor Championships last month, she thoroughly trounced the fourth-seeded Andrea Temesvari and eighth-seeded Bonnie Gadusek before losing to Chris Evert Lloyd in the semifinals. But Maleeva doesn’t want to rush into the spotlight. “I just want to play well,” she says, “and to go step by step.”
A love—and talent—for sports runs in her family. Mom was a nine-time Bulgarian tennis champion, and her father played basketball for the national team. Coached by her mother, Manuela started playing at 5 and won her first tournament at 9.
Besides her skill, Maleeva has another factor in her favor: the Martina Navratilova stamp of approval. “She is an all-round athlete,” says Navratilova. “She’s got all of the shots—and the desire to win.”
Manuela doesn’t like to speculate where she might be in a few years. “I haven’t thought about this. I’m not a fantasy person. I’m down to earth.”
To say that Richard Pavlicek Jr. was born to be a bridge player is putting it mildly. His parents met while playing bridge, and they took their son to his first tournament when he was 3 weeks old. Now 14 years of age, Pavlicek is the youngest Life Master (out of 30,000) in the country, a ranking he earned just three years after taking up the game in 1980.
After years of “caddying”—picking up score slips, emptying ashtrays and running errands for players—Richie decided to try his hand at the game. “We knew he was ready for tournament play when he was 9 and showed us he could remember and replay all 26 hands of a bridge session,” says his mother. “There aren’t many adults who can do that.” Though his parents have made bridge their lifework (both teach and play professionally), it is only a hobby for Richie. During the school year (he’s a ninth grader at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) he plays an average of three hours a week—less time than he spends on his tennis, chess or computer games. Around school Pavlicek is better known for his tennis and Ping-Pong prowess than his bridge. How come? “It’s not a subject that comes up a lot,” he says with a shrug. Unlike his parents Pavlicek doesn’t plan to make his living at the bridge table—he wants to be a computer engineer—and no doubt will play his cards accordingly.