3am, Wednesday 2nd.October, alarm went off, up I jumped, dressed, washed and left home, in the dark, at 03:30 for Teesside International Airport for my 06:20 flight to Schiphol. After a brief overlay at Schiphol I arrived on time at Sofia International airport. Arriving at Sofia there were a few problems with my pickup to take me to the hotel but time, and a few Facebook messages to the deputy referee, and I was picked up in temperatures of 28 degrees, phew, didn't mind waiting outside for him in those sort of temperatures. The hotel was nothing flash but the bed was an electronic type where the top, or the foot, of the bed can be raised up using a controlling handset. Made me chuckle but not necessarily more comfortable during the night. Room to myself for the first night so I was all set. After a little walk out and around, I retired for a not so early start the following day.
After breakfast I waited for the transport to arrive.......and I waited......and I waited, eventually after a quick call to the refereeing team my transport arrived in the shape of the deputy referee’s car, don't you just love the transport arrangements....especially in some of the lower ranking tournaments, it is endearing though. Apart from transport, and few 'technical hitches' early on, the first day passed incident free and I saw the day out with a high degree of Bulgarian players sharing a court with me and not surprising I was last game on court. After play had ended for the day we all went to a lovely restaurant, the other side of a car park very close to the hotel, with lots of traditional decorations, music, singing, dancing and of course the food. Fed and watered, people drifted away to the hotel so as to be ready for day 2.
Day 2, breakfast complete and bit more organised regarding transport, arriving at the venue and briefest of briefings and back to it. More singles and this time introducing the doubles events. Another incident free day meant a close to schedule finish for everyone.... apart from yours truly! What's going on? At least the game of doubles I was involved with, for over an hour, was a good match worth the late finish. Tables, at the same restaurant, booked for 20:00, I left the venue at 19:20 but thanks to the F1 style driving from one of the local umpires I was back in my room, changed and back out to the same restaurant just a few minutes later than planned. This time the restaurant entertained us with a full chorus of dancers strutting their stuff along the full floor in the horseshoe shaped restaurant. After one or two well-chosen words into the deputy referee’s ear, up he jumped and next time we saw him he was in the middle of the line of dancers, knees up high, holding hands with two lovely local ladies and not a trodden on toe in sight to their credit. Страхотен танцуващ Алекс Джони Джуров.
(Editor’s note – translates as Great Dancing Alex Johnny Dzhurov)
Saturday arrived, quarters and semis ahead of us, with a three hour break in between the two. No shops at the centre were open due to the slightly remote location of the Trade Centre Europe and very few people are on the site at the weekend so a stroll around the outside of the building, in the sun, admiring all the concrete supports for the nearby flyovers and the safe driving exhibited by the locals, at ground level, going about their weekend business. At close of play, the referee team informed everybody concerned as to who the ten were who would be working on finals day, pleased to hear my name amongst them. Evening’s entertainment was, this time, in the hotel’s restaurant enjoying some nice, but probably more expensive, food from the limited menu in the hotel and some absolutely appalling Bulgarian Saturday evening peak TV viewing.
Sunday came, a sports hall with more officials’ luggage in it than spectators, and the final officials briefing of the event. I was pleased to find my final was the opening match, the mixed doubles, involving one of the nation’s top mixed pairs and a pair from Finland. After leading the team of officials, and the players onto court, and all involved being introduced to both spectators, play commenced and the Fins took the first game but, to the delight of the local spectators, the Bulgars came back to win a well contested three ender. Leading the team off I settled back into the umpires seating area. After two more finals my second final was due on so, same as before, I led the team of officials and the women for the women’s doubles final into the centre of the court for the introductions. Looking at the ladies involved, the Bulgars looked, physically, like they were up against it and so it proved to be. Out muscled in the first game then putting up a stronger show in the second game but alas, and alack, they went down fighting in the second. Leading everyone concerned off the court my event was now over. I was now finally a member of the club, that no doubt plenty of other umpires are already a member of, I had now been given two finals to umpire in the one event.
I was not leaving Bulgaria until the Monday, same with the referee, so enter the local hero, Alex Dzhurov the deputy referee, who treated the referee and myself to a very informed and professionally delivered guided tour of some of the more interesting and historical sights of down town Sofia finishing off with some good food in a nice streetside restaurant. After thanking the refereeing team for looking after me, and the other officials, very well we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways to home. Early start following morning and a brief 2 1/2 hour flight from Sofia to Schiphol, I settled in Schiphol to wait for my transfer flight, 7 hours later. My flight was due to leave at 16:40 CET and as 16:00 approached announcements were being made regarding delayed flights. On the departure board my flight was in sixth place on a list of ten. Announcements followed first flight....delayed, second flight....delayed, yadder yadder yadder fifth flight delayed................sixth flight announced, boarding immediately to Teesside International Airport. A big cheesy spread across my face, up I jumped grabbed my hand luggage and joined the queue. 'No sh*t Sherlock' were my thoughts and I have never had a flight crew prepare a flight for take-off as quick as those super heroes from KLM did on that day. Suddenly we were airborne and on our way home. Departing Bulgarian soil on time 16:40 CET we landed on Teesside turf at 16:50 BST. Home at last. Mega thanks to the Bulgarian Badminton Association, the refereeing team, Darko Ivan Vidakovic and Alex Dzhurov, and the crew of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines KL 1535 for stepping up to the plate and getting me home on time.