The bronze medal won by France’s badminton star Toma Junior Popov at the European Championships 2022 was his first at international level.
“It’s just the beginning,” says Toma Popov, his father and coach.
Now the 23-year-old is aiming higher at one of this year’s most prestigious international competitions, the next Indonesian Open: A Super 1000 (best World Tour category) that will take place from 14 to 19 June.
Currently ranked 25th in the world, Toma Junior (nicknamed Tomi) travels the globe alongside his family, whose history with the sport began thousands of kilometres away from France where they now live.
A difficult arrival in France
Tomi arrived in France at age six, with his mother and younger brother Christo, who was born two years after him. They made their way to Fos-sur-Mer in the south of France, where the father had moved in 2003 to help the local badminton team.
Toma senior Popov had been a national champion in Bulgaria and a coach at national level, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a great overhaul of the country and saw budgets for sport dissipate. Many Bulgarian athletes had already left the country, including Mihail Popov, father Toma's brother, who competed for Bulgaria at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 in the men’s singles and doubles events, before moving to France in 1999.
Toma's son Tomi arrived in the provencal city in 1st grade, without being able to speak a word of French.
Integrating through badminton
“My first days of school were complicated,” recalled Tomi in an interview with Olympics.com. “I wasn’t confident and I didn’t want to go to class. People stared at you because they didn’t know you and knew you didn’t speak French.”
Outside of school, Tomi played badminton and followed his father to the local gyms as often as he could. In that relaxed environment, he honed his skills and also became more familiar with the French language.
“I would communicate with other people, and after a while, people got to know me and I integrated. Everyone did their part.”
With the help of a teacher, who used a list of words and expressions provided by Tomi’s mother to help him understand the game, it only took a year for him to learn to speak French and feel at home in his new country.
“At the end of the year, it was flowing,” he said.
Fast tracked to success too fast
Tomi’s school life turned into that of your average child, however his evolution as a badminton player was anything but normal. He quickly became one of the best players in his region and found a rival in Tanguy Citron, who was two years older than him and had participated at the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014.
In 2017, Tomi moved onto the international stage at the Youth European Championships, where he won the singles event. It is the same title that was won by current World number one Viktor Axelsen and Rio 2016 Spanish Olympic champion Carolina Marin back in 2011.
He also went on to win the men’s doubles, alongside Thom Gicquel, and the team event.
Fast forward to May 2018 and Tomi’s career began to take off. After storming up the rankings, he closed in on the top 50 and started dreaming about Tokyo 2020.
Christo, Tomi’s younger brother, who is currently ranked 58 in the world, began to progress rapidly as well, however things soon became harder to handle.
“I was going from competition to competition and winning, but at some point we also needed a social life,” explained Tomi. “Badminton is cool, but I felt like I was losing myself. I was burnt out in a small way.”
COVID brings an opportunity to improve
After a back injury caused Tomi to pull out of the first Tokyo 2020 qualifiers, COVID-19 forced him to take a break from the sport. It was, in fact, a welcome one.
“It allowed me to step back. Yes [badminton] is my job but it’s a mixture of enjoyment, employment and passion. We have to be able to handle that.
“When I returned, I had missed it so much, and that’s when I improved. Maybe the break helped me to take the next step.”
He won his first Super 100 in October 2020 in Saarbrücken, Germany, before a first Super 300 in 2021 in Huelva, Spain was followed by two wins at the Orleans Masters (Super 100) in 2021 and 2022.
At the same time as Tomi’s rapid rise, his brother Christo also joined the senior tour. Christo won two national titles, in 2020 and 2022, and in so doing became France’s youngest-ever national champion.
“Meeting in the final is OK,” said Christo about the matches between the two brothers. “But during the earlier stages it’s harder because we know one of us will be eliminated.”
The nightmare scenario happened in the Orleans Masters semi-final, where Tomi won.
“Playing against him is…” began the victor that day, searching for his words. “We want to win but the killer instinct disappears. It’s my brother, so if I win I am taking a victory away from him. And taking it from a brother hurts.”
While losing - and in this case winning - hurts, nothing can scar their relationship.
“We share everything. We are brothers and also best friends,” concluded Tomi.
Writing history as a family
While the brothers may face off against each other in the singles competition, they also play beside each other in the doubles.
“We fuse well together, that’s why we play well in the doubles. For now, we’re a step ahead of the others, so I hope it stays that way.”
In the singles, Tomi is dreaming about Paris 2024 after he failed to qualify for Tokyo 2020, with France’s sole quota awarded to Brice Leverdez.
However, he also thinks the podium is a real possibility when the Olympics take place in the French capital.
“After what Guatemala’s Kevin Cordon [world number 36] did in Tokyo, where he reached the semifinals, anything is possible.
“Getting out of the group stage would already be great, then let's see what happens in the quarters and semis. And an Olympic medal... we wouldn’t say no to it!”
It would be the first Olympic medal for French badminton, and a historic achievement for a badminton-loving family.