Confessions of a 14-Year-Old Tennis Star
Photograph by Peggy Garbus
With her engaging smile, long legs, and swingy ponytail, Natalie Ivanov may look like any other 14-year-old girl who favors skinny jeans, eats Luna bars, and loves reruns of Gossip Girl but she is also a fierce competitor with her eye firmly planted on a career in tennis. She picked up a racket when she was two and has been hooked ever since. Her parents, Penko and Jennifer Ivanov, have done a lot to support Natalie’s dreams. They had a tennis court built at the family’s Wilton home, hired a top-notch coach to help her get to the next level, and acquiesced to their daughter’s request to be home-schooled so she can have more time to practice and compete.
Natalie travels to competitions with her father 45 out of 52 weekends a year, a former tennis pro himself, Penko Ivanov well understands the sacrifices his daughter must make to succeed, having made them himself. The son of a Bulgarian tennis pro, he started playing at age five and continued through his second year of college, competing at the national and international level. When he discovered he could not excel at both tennis and school simultaneously, he had to make a tough decision. Ultimately his love of engineering won out. “Playing tennis was a great opportunity because it provided me with travel opportunities around the world,” he says. “However, unless you make it to a certain level, that lifestyle is not very sexy. As a journeyman you’re roughing it. Living out of two bags for 45 weeks of the year gets old very fast.”
Penko describes his daughter as, “a straight-A student, very stubborn, very diligent, very precise,” and concedes these are all qualities that will help her succeed in the future. However, playing the role of both parent and coach can be challenging. “Some of the things a coach might say are not things a loving father would say,” he says.
One can’t help but wonder if Penko has pressured his daughter to follow in his rubber-soled tennis shoe footsteps? Not so says Natalie. “I am not driven by my parents. I am driven by me. I pushed them to help me do what I want to do. And I really want to be good.”
Her father agrees. “I learned from my own father that it shouldn’t be my choice, it should be her choice.”
Since the sixth grade, Natalie has willingly chosen the rigorous full-time tennis program offered at Intensity Academy in Norwalk. In addition to completing all her eighth grade schoolwork online, Natalie plays tennis between four and six hours a day and does an additional hour of physical training including weights, cardio, Pilates, and footwork drills. She also trains in mental fitness, focusing on subjects such as positivity, mental toughness, breath control, and meditation. And the minute the snow melts, Natalie plays more tennis at home in the evenings when her father returns from work at 8 p.m. This routine continues into late fall, until it’s too cold to play.
“She has a healthy recognition that it is probably a long shot,” says her mother. “A dream is just a dream. A goal is something that is measurable and backed by plan and effort. Natalie has very definite goals.”
One major goal is to get into a Division One school, such as Stanford, the University of Southern California, or Duke, on a full scholarship. But to get there, she needs to keep working.
Asked what she loves most about playing tennis, Natalie is quick to respond. “I love that it’s just you and another player. You’re fighting for yourself. Your results are all based on how hard you work. If you train hard, you’ll be better. I’m just as disciplined on and off the court. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t disciplined and I could easily fall behind.”
Natalie’s work ethic is paying off, and she continues to move up the ranks in New England. “Absolutely I’m proud of her,” says Penko. “It’s only a matter of time before Natalie is ranked number one for her age group for the state of Connecticut.”
Does she miss having a regular childhood? “Sometimes yes,” admits Natalie. “I wish I could hang out with friends at the mall, sleep in or have a day off, but I really enjoy what I do. I feel proud and excited when I’m playing well. I forget about everything else.” She pauses for a moment and then adds, “It’s just me and the tennis ball and I leave everything else behind.”