It’s a long way from Plovdiv to Iowa, and from Iowa to Virginia Beach. When women’s tennis head coach Toni Bickford left her home in Bulgaria for the United States, she had nothing but tennis in her heart and on her mind. She would eventually find a home on the East Coast as the head coach of the William and Mary team following her own successful American college career, all because of a love for the sport she developed at a very young age.
“One day we walked by a tennis court, and [my sister] thought it was a great idea to sign me up for tennis,” Bickford said. “… [My parents] thought it was a great idea to just try different sports, so I started, and it really was love at first sight … [They] would drop me at the tennis courts in the morning and you know with my lunch bag, and I would be there all day [until] the afternoon.”
In Bulgaria, before she was a successful college athlete in the United States, Bickford had 12 Junior National titles under her belt from 1990-97. She was a member of the 1998 Bulgarian Fed Cup Team and clawed her way to a world singles ranking of No. 650 before leaving for the United States and the University of Iowa.
At Iowa, Bickford was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1999. In that same year, Bickford and teammate at the time, Shera Wiegler, became the first doubles team in Hawkeyes history to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. In 2002, she became the first in program history to compete in singles in the NCAA Championships.
“I think that my favorite tennis memory is making it to [sweet sixteen] with my team when I was a freshman,” Bickford said. “… I didn’t really know the scope of how big those schools are and how great they are, and we ended up beating a lot of good teams unexpectedly. My team wasn’t that good the previous year, and then I came in, and I wouldn’t say I changed the culture, because I thought that maybe they changed the way that I competed, but I really helped them … And this is probably my greatest memory from my whole life.”
From 1999-2002, Bickford earned All-Big Ten First Team honors and was inducted into the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.
“It was a great choice, as I really loved my team and the environment and my coaches,” Bickford said. “So I played there for four years. It was a great experience. I would never trade it for going anywhere else in the world.”
After graduating from Iowa, Bickford accepted an offer to be the school’s assistant coach, where she worked with her own former coach [Name] for a short time. After six years, Bickford saw an opening for assistant coach at the College and jumped at the opportunity. Three seasons later, in 2011, the team won the Colonial Athletic Association Championship, finishing with a No. 44 national ranking.
“In 2008 I decided that I’ve [kind of] outgrown my opportunities at Iowa, and I wanted to search for something different,” Bickford said. “So at that time, College of William and Mary had an opening for assistant coach so I applied for it, and that’s how I ended up being on the East Coast.”
After being an assistant coach for so long, Bickford is looking forward to creating her own program and achieving certain goals at the helm of the Tribe.
“It’s always been very attractive to me, having the combination of very high academics and Division I tennis.”
“It’s always been very attractive to me, having the combination of very high academics and Division I tennis. And it’s very attractive for recruits, and I just think that this is the best place on Earth to like recruit girls to play tennis,” Bickford said. “So I knew that that’s where I would like to be successful, and this is the type of student athletes I want to have to work with. And that’s one of the reasons why I came back.”
With a team that already has a solid foundation, Bickford is looking for ways to make small adjustments without tearing away at the culture that already exists.
“I feel like I’m more getting adopted by [the team], rather than me right now coming in and just recreating the culture,” Bickford said. “Especially the first year, because they’ve been in a kind of tennis family for like a couple years, and they’ve done certain things a certain way. And I think that I’m not looking to come in and just throw everything apart and just start rebuilding.”
With her best coaching memories yet to come in a not-too-distant future, Bickford is ready to continue the team’s success in the conference and build on those achievements in the NCAA tournament.
“they know that they have each others’ backs, and that helps me out because I know that they also have my back.”
“What’s really promising with [the team] is that they’re already incredibly disciplined,” Bickford said. “… They’re the type of kids that hold themselves to very high standards. Not only that, but they are also a very good family … That’s important because they know that they have each others’ backs, and that helps me out because I know that they also have my back.”
Bickford now lives in Virginia Beach with her four-year-old son, Dylan, and her husband, Dave. While she spends most of her time playing or coaching tennis, off the court Bickford loves to cook, bake and spend time with her family. She cherishes the time she gets to spend with her son, even if her son doesn’t seem to share her love for tennis quite yet.
“[Dylan] doesn’t play tennis,” Bickford said. “We’ve tried, he’s just not interested in it … maybe someday.”
With just under two months until the spring season gets underway, Bickford and the team are ready for the new era of Tribe tennis.
“I’m the type of person who likes to focus on the process,” Bickford said. “… Clearly, I would like to continue the tradition of winning the CAAs. This is just, you know, priority number one, and hopefully we can be a little more successful with the [NCAA] tournament.”