Belfast Telegraph

Top that! Pizza delivery dad holds down two jobs to give tennis-mad teen a chance of Wimbledon glory

By David Kelly

While the cream of the world’s tennis players strut their stuff on Wimbledon’s grass, one man is defying the odds to allow his daughter to one day play at SW19.

Leonard Bejenaru (44), a Romanian who has been living in east Belfast for 10 years, is all too aware of the cost of making 15-year-old Karola's dreams come true in a country without an official indoor centre of excellence.

Despite that, Leonard, Karola and Windsor Tennis Club coach Przemek Stec of Poland are plotting a route to the top.

For nine of those 10 years Leonard had two jobs. He cleaned in a cinema, and he continues to deliver pizzas for Dominos from 4.30pm through to 5am before heading home to pick up Karola.

Her training starts at 7am and finishes at 8.15am, before going to Orangefield High School, Belfast.

Karola, who turned 15 last week, recently won the women's Ulster Senior Open. Having picked up ranking points on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit, for 14 to 18 year-olds, she is focused on making it to junior Wimbledon, with dad Leonard stretching himself to the limit.

“It's very hard for us — there is no financial help from the governing body. In Germany, England and other European countries they pay for the top players to travel.

“I think the Sports Council for Northern Ireland should give more support because Karola is a good role model for young tennis players in Northern Ireland,” says the former Romanian national table tennis champion. His family joined him here five years after he came to Belfast to work.

“Recently we went to Nottingham for two weeks for two tournaments and it cost us £3,000. Now we are going to Edinburgh and there is little money. To get to the top you have to play regularly in Europe but it costs a lot. Last year when we went to Cork for a tournament Karola slept in a hotel and I slept in the car for the week.”

He sums it up simply: “This is the sacrifice you have to make.

“I believe Karola can get to play junior Wimbledon and go on to be a professional. She has the talent but we need to do more European events.

“She has beaten girls who play every other week.

“We have a racket sponsorship from Mantis, but really we would need a sponsor to help with coaching and travelling.”

Returning to Romania is not an option.

Leonard says: “I have to work here for Karola because if I went back to Romania we couldn't pay for her coaching and I also have to send money back for her sister Artemis, who is at university.

“I did the two jobs for nine years but now I just do the pizza delivery. I have to thank Dominos for being flexible with me because they give me time off when I need.

“I have learned that the one thing you never do is give up.

“You must keep believing.”

The sacrifices parents make to give their kids a sporting chance

The road to sporting stardom is often built on the sacrifices of encouraging mums and dads.

You don’t have to look much further than our own Rory McIlroy to see the lengths some parents go to fund their child’s talents and dreams.

Rory’s father Gerry, himself a nifty golfer, is said to have introduced his son to the game at 18 months old. As the youngster’s astounding talent emerged, Gerry held down several jobs to earn additional funding for his development.

Meanwhile, Rory’s mum Rosie worked night shifts at a factory to help her only child fulfil his dreams.

Back on the tennis court, Richard Williams has been a significant driving force in the Grand Slam success of his daughters Venus and Serena.

He decided at a young age that his girls would be tennis players, bringing them to public tennis courts before sending them to tennis tournaments — and on the road to sporting stardom.

Women’s world number one tennis player Maria Sharapova and her father moved from her native Russia to the US — leaving the rest of the family behind — as her winning ways emerged.

Yuri took various low-paying jobs, including dish-washing, to fund Maria’s lessons.

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