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Brosse Street Journal » Sport:

Sport to business: Meskhi has Become Queen of Georgian Tennis

By Suren Deherian
Brosse Street Journal
Friday, May 21 2004
Print article  |  Mail article   

She looks more serious now that she is a businesswoman. Those who remember her with a tennis racket in her hand, a young girl with a beautiful face, long straight blond hair, dressed in a sports shirt and shorts, might not recognize her dressed in a business suit.

Leyla Meskhi, now 36, was the first Soviet woman to win a major singles tournament at age 21 when she upset three opponents in 1989 at Nashville (USA). It was the first pro tour tournament win for a Soviet woman since 1974. In 1990, Meskhiís world ranking climbed as high as number 12.

One month ago, she was reelected president of the Georgian Tennis Federation for a second term. There were 85 people on the election committee and few voted against her. The other candidate was 59-year-old Alexander Metreveli, a champion when tennis first became popular in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

"Of course Metreveli is player number one, but Leyla has always achieved what she wants. She was ready for the election," says 70-year-old Guram Tokhadze, Meskhiís first trainer. "She is a very clever woman. I wasnít mistaken when I took her in."

In 1996, Meskhi founded the Leyla Meskhi Tennis Academy. In two years, she plans to construct a large sports complex in the Digomi region of Tbilisi. Plans call for a stadium, 11 tennis courts, a hotel, restaurant, a swimming pool and a sauna on 2.5 hectares.

Meskhi was seven years old when her father asked Tokhadze to be a tennis instructor for Nana (Leylaís elder sister).

"But why donít you want to give this girl tennis?" Tokhadze remembers asking their father, who said Leyla was still a very little girl.

"Nothing of the kind," Tokhadze replied. "Beginning tomorrow, both of them can come for tennis." Since that day, Tohadze says that he doesnít remember one time when Leyla missed a lesson or didnít fulfill an assignment.

Except for Tokhadze and her father, nobody could imagine this plump girl would be a champion in several years.

"There were other girls, but Meskhi became a leader at once," says Tokhadze " Once she began to weep during a tournament because an official made an incorrect call. Leyla wept, but she continued the game. She did everything to win."

That is also her goal in life.

"I achieved my goals thanks to my father," says Meskhi. "He thought our last name is a nice name for sports. He dreamed that his boy would go to football and his girl to tennis. That is why he came with me to every lesson."

Meskhi had no brother, and her sister Nana decided to get out of sports. Now she is a schoolteacher.

Meskhi continued to train persistently, although she admits that when she was a young girl, she couldnít understand why she should go to tennis practice while her friend played in the yard.

"Of course, at that time I didnít know what I wanted from this life," she says. "But when I started to win competitions, I forgot all of the childish games. After that the physical activity became an amusement for me."

She believes in good fortune and acting at exactly the right moment. She did it on the court and now she is doing it in her career.

"Without good fortune there will be nothing," says Meskhi, "I think every sportsmen believes in fortune or signs. God gives a chance to everybody, even to fools. I can use my ability and I teach the same to my students and children."

After Nashville, she was a winner at Auckland and Moscow at 1990, at Wellington at 1991, and at Linz (Austria) in 1993. She competed in dozens of cities before she injured her leg in 1995. Her professional playing career ended in 1996.

"After that people forgot me. Nobody asked about my health. Even the journalists disappeared," says Meskhi. " I learned that people could forget anybody quickly if they arenít doing anything. Even though I was a champion for many years, young Georgian people know nothing about me."

Meskhiís character wouldnít allow her sit at home. Along with her husband Pavil Nadibaidze, she decided to open a private tennis academy for children. In 1996 they bought and had repaired the former state tennis school on Marjanishvili Street.

"I am doing the same job," she says. "In the past I did it inside the court and now itís outside the court. And I feel pleasure again."

She said the academy isnít really a business, because the children cannot pay much money. She hopes the new complex will be a good business. She plans to hold international tournaments at the facility.

There are several tennis schools and clubs in Georgia. Athletes usually pay about 50$ per month for training. During Soviet times it was free of charge.

Teymur Kakulia, 57, was Meskhiís second trainer after Tokhadze.

"Today, tennis as a sport (in Georgia) is in desperate straits," he said. Kakulia trained Meskhi for 15 years, but a month ago he voted against her. He said that she was a good sportsman, but as a president she did nothing for the federation.

For two years Kakulia has trained potential star Ia Jikia. She is 15 years old and already has many victories. Jikia was a little girl when Meskhi played tennis and she didnít see Meskhi compete. Iaís father Elguja Jikia, comes every day to training with his daughter, just like Meskhiís father did.

"With one difference," says Algujia Jikia, who is a businessman. "Meskhiís father spent nothing, but today tennis is an expensive sport. This year alone I spent $8,000 so that Jikia could train and take part in international tournaments. Nobody wants to help us."

"Today sports receives subsidies everywhere in the world, and it is necessary," says Meskhi. "The government paid for sports organizations during the Soviet time, but the Federation canít do it."

The Federation is now located in the same building as Meskhiís academy. "It is advantageous for the federation to be here," she says. "The academy is a private school and Federation doesnít pay any money for space. But of course if tomorrow the president of Federation changes, it should move from here."

"Leyla became a champion in a good period," says Tokhadze. "When she started to play tennis, sport was free in the Soviet Union, and when she started to win the Soviet Union was already destroyed and every prize was given to her, rather then to the government."

Meskhiís career prize money totaled $1,139,205. She earned $181,336 in 1994.

She has a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. Her daughter is practicing tennis every day. Meskhi regrets that she canít spend more time with her child, like her father did. She says if her daughter would like to become a tennis professional, she will help her.

Meskhi likes punctuality and cleanliness. She loves her children dearly, and when she has free time she spends it with them.

"It would be bad of me to say I like to cook, but I canít spend my time in the kitchen. I can prepare, but it is not for me," she says. "Pavil and I prefer to go to a restaurant."

Meskhi likes needlepoint, music, reading, and watching basketball. She likes visiting museums and Christian Dior clothing. She speaks Georgian, Russian and English. Her favorite actress is Demi Moore, her favorite singer Madonna and her favorite color is pink.

" I donít have much time to regret not playing in tournaments. I like what I am doing now," says Meskhi. "I was a leader then and I am a leader now. I have never liked being number two."

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