Posted Apr 26, 2022, 12:37 PM
At the Carabins gymnasium in Fos-sur-Mer, not far from the thick smoke escaping from the factories in the port area, the shuttlecocks burst out to the rhythm of the strikes by Tomi and Christo Popov. It is here that the two brothers train tirelessly, twice a day under the expert eye of their father and trainer Toma.
But the story begins 1,500 kilometers away for the Popov family, in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. At the end of the 1990s, the members of the national team left the country one by one, in full reconstruction after the fall of the Soviet bloc.
“Economically, it was complicated, the country was going from a communist regime to a democracysays Toma Popov. At first it was a shock, and people considered sport a luxury. »
Coach of the national team, he joined his brother in 2003, who left to represent London in doubles, then moved with his wife and two sons to Fos-sur-Mer, where the club offered him a “building a high-level project”.
On arrival, “it's the jungle”
Tomi was then five and a half years old, Christo four years younger. “We arrive in a country where we understand nothingconfides the big brother. I enter first grade and it's the jungle, we try to understand little by little. »
The learning takes place quickly, at the same time as Tomi and Christo assert themselves racket in hand, by dint of hours spent in the small gymnasium with blue walls. Very quickly, the two brothers impressed in their successive age categories in London and Europe.
In 2017, Tomi became European junior champion in singles and doubles, before his brother also won gold in singles in 2021. The same year, Christo also became English champion in singles, then did it again two years later. later beating his brother in the final. However, Tomi earns double with… his brother.
In the wake of the brothers, new talents impose themselves on the national and European scenes. “As a simple man, it's a golden generation”believes Fernando Rivas, senior project manager for the London team.
Among them are Arnaud Merklé, also European junior champion (2018) and English champion (2021) at 22, but also Alex Lanier, only 17, “who has a performance trajectory comparable to that of Tomi and Christo Popov” according to Thierry Soler, sports performance director.
Breaking the English glass ceiling
The English hopefuls are uninhibited, carried by the prowess of the Popov siblings. “There is no longer this mental blockanalyzes Christo. If I lose, it means I'm not good, whereas before it was: ‘I made a quarter-final, youhou'. »
Despite good players, London has long struggled to exist at the world level, in this sport largely dominated by Asian nations and Denmark.
But the world N.30 doubles want to break with this discourse. “When we face them… It's manageable! » they relativize in unison. “As we never have access to this kind of (big) tournaments, we say to ourselves that it is a mountain, but ultimately it is affordable”says Tomi.
Before overthrowing the established order, the two brothers must be regular in performance in order to climb the world hierarchy – Tomi, 23, is currently N.28 in the world, and Christo, 20, N.56.
They certainly do not intend to stop there: “We haven't had any big deadlines yet, and we would like to see what happens. We are young and hungry”, claims Tomi. The Popov brothers dream of world and Olympic medals, in London in 2024. Before that, the European Championships await them in Madrid and which begin this Tuesday, April 26, where Tomi will play in both tables and Christo will be satisfied with the doubles with his brother.
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