It is not just tough opponents who pose a challenge for Stoeva sisters Gabriela and Stefani as they build their campaign to Tokyo 2020. Homesickness is also a problem.
The Bulgarian siblings have their training base in Paris, and admit that it can be wearisome to be away from home for long periods.
“When we get tired and when we need to get a little bit of cooling down and rest, we’d like to go back to Bulgaria,” said Gabriela. “Training in Paris is helping us a lot. We can see the proof. (But) It’s hard, because France is not our country, it’s our workplace, we need to give 100 percent there. But sometimes we need to make sacrifices.”
As Europe’s best women’s doubles pair, the attention on them from their home country is expected to build up over the next few months. The Stoevas – who are currently 9th in the Race to Tokyo – acknowledge the pressure from fans back home.
“There’s a lot of attention on us because we’re bringing a lot of results for our country, and everyone’s expecting us to be always in good shape and always at a high level. We’re trying not to think about the pressure and just focus on our game.”
The Bulgarians had an unusual season, marked by a significant absence from the Tour early in the Olympic qualifying period due to a disagreement with their association. After the All England in March, and with the exception of the World Championships, they did not play another top-tier event (Super 500 or above) until the VICTOR China Open in September. Since then, they’ve had some good results – beating, for instance, Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi in France and China; and winning the Dutch Open – but they haven’t come close to replicating their stunning run last year.
“We have had a few issues at beginning of the summer. We had to stop for a little bit,” said Gabriela. “It was hard to come back, because when you stop at this high level, it’s very hard to catch up with world class pairs in women’s doubles. So for us the main goal was to reach the level we had at the beginning of the year, to try to keep up on their level because that’s very hard. And I think we’re coming back slowly, but we try to fight for every game, and every match.”
At the end of last year the Bulgarian sisters could look back at a breakthrough season in their careers, as they made the finals of the Swiss Open and the French Open, won the European Championships, and qualified to the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2019, on the back of consistent performances against the world’s best pairs. Since returning the circuit, they have been working their way back to form, highlighted by encouraging quarterfinals finishes at the French Open and the Fuzhou China Open.
“We still have a lot of work left to do,” said Gabriela, after the Bulgarians beat Olympic champions Matsutomo and Takahashi in Fuzhou. “We dream someday to reach a final and maybe even win one of these tournaments. But for us the main goal is to play better every round, to fight against every pair, and if we can go to the final, that will be perfect for us.”
“It’s giving us more confidence, and not be so afraid against the Asians, and I think that’s a positive thing when we go on court,” added Stefani. “Wins against the top pairs always gives you motivation to work harder… our coach is training us to be like men’s doubles, be more aggressive, and we’re sparring more with the boys.”