Sarajevo Courts.bmp
Sarajevo courts where Dzumhur played as a kid

Steinberger: Dzumhur Got His First Taste of Tennis on a Makeshift Court

It is a trite observation, but with so much attention focused on tennis’s biggest stars, it is easy to forget that there are compelling stories down the ranks. We know there’s more depth to the pro game than ever before and that the guy ranked 90th in the world can, if presented the opportunity, take down a top-10 player on a given afternoon. We are less likely to know the name of the guy ranked 90th or anything about him. If we do learn those details, it is usually by happenstance—we stumble across one of his matches, or we bump into him in a hotel lobby during a tournament, or he has an epic tantrum that goes viral.

The player currently ranked 90th on the ATP Tour is Bosnia’s Damir Dzumhur. I know about him because one of my tennis cronies used to hit with him when he was a kid. I now follow Dzumhur not just because he is a gifted player, but also because he has a truly remarkable story. He was born in Sarajevo in May 1992, exactly one month after Serbian forces laid siege to the city. During the four years that followed, some 5000 civilians in Sarajevo were killed; no city suffered more in the war that engulfed the Balkans in the early 1990s. The idea that a world-class tennis player would emerge from that carnage would have struck most people as preposterous at the time—all the more so because Bosnia had never been a tennis stronghold. But Dzumhur not only grew up to become just such a player; along the way, he was a child actor who had parts in two acclaimed films about the Balkans conflagration.

The tennis friend who alerted me to Dzumhur is John Stocker, who teaches finance at the University of Delaware. From 2004-2008, John was based in Sarajevo. The University of Delaware had established a graduate business school with the University of Sarajevo, and John was sent over to run the program. He played tennis there, usually at a clay court facility that a local doctor had built illegally in the wake of the Balkan Wars. The courts were sandwiched between some burned-out army barracks and a parking garage. Dzumhur, who was in his early teens at the time, was a regular at the courts, and John became one of his sparring partners.

A few years ago, John and I became sparring partners. By that time, Dzumhur was playing professionally, and John would update me on his progress. I started paying closer attention to Dzumhur last year, after he beat Rafael Nadal at the Miami Open. But that sentence doesn’t quite do justice to what Dzumhur pulled off. On a hot, grotesquely swampy day, Dzumhur physically broke Nadal, who midway through the third set said “no mas” and retired. Lots of players have beaten Nadal; I don’t ever recall another player forcing him to surrender on account of exhaustion. A few weeks later, Dzumhur took out Tomas Berdych at the Monte-Carlo Masters, and this February the 5ft 9in Bosnian conclusively established his giant-killer status by beating Stan Wawrinka in Dubai. A couple of weeks later, I was in Indian Wells, he was in Indian Wells, and I decided it was a good opportunity to meet him.

We talked in the outdoor players’ lounge. The night before, Dzumhur had won his first-round match with a three-set victory over Ryan Harrison. In this instance, it was the 45th ranked player, Harrison, who had the tantrum that went viral: after losing, the American went on a racket-smashing rampage. Dzumhur had just hit a career-high 66th in the world (his second-round exit in Miami two weeks later and his first-round loss in Monte Carlo earlier this month sent his ranking tumbling into the 90s; he reached the fourth round in both tournaments last year and was thus defending a lot of points). He had lost to Harrison in Memphis in February and was happy to have avenged that defeat. What made him even happier was that he had come through in three sets. It was, pardon the cliché, a gut-check match, and Dzumhur suggested that it was the kind of victory that could yield dividends long into the future. “It’s a step forward,” he said.

A friendly and articulate 24-year-old who speaks impeccable English, Dzumhur told me that the key to his recent success was his decision last year to forgo the South American clay court swing that followed the Australian Open and to instead play the hard court events in Memphis, Delray Beach, and Acapulco. He had grown up on clay and it was his natural habitat, if you will. But he realized that, with two of the four slams and six of the nine Masters 1000 events played on hard courts, he needed to become more proficient at hard court tennis. He said the experience and confidence that he gained in just a matter of weeks was invaluable. “The decision was really important for my career,” he said. The payoff came almost instantly, with the win in Miami over Nadal. Dzumhur had played Roger Federer twice in 2015 and had faced other top players. But he said his mindset was different when he took the court against Nadal—for the first time against a marquee player, he didn’t feel intimated. “I went out having enough respect for the guy but not too much respect,” he said. “I felt it could be my day.” And it was.

We talked about his improbable journey from Sarajevo to Indian Wells. Two days after Dzumhur was born, the hospital in which he was delivered was evacuated because of Serbian shelling. His father Nerfid, a Bosnian Muslim, wasn’t present for his birth—he had been away from Sarajevo when the Serbs began their blockade. He was eventually able to sneak back into the city and met his son for the first time when he was 10 months old. Dzumhur said that because he was so young at the time, he has few memories of the war, and his parents don’t talk much about it with him or his younger brother. “They prefer to live in the present,” he said. His father was a tennis coach and audaciously opened a tennis club at the height of the war. Playing outside was too dangerous, so they created a makeshift court in a school gym, and that’s where Dzumhur got his first taste of tennis. Once the war ended, he was able to begin a normal training regimen, and he eventually rose to number three in the ITF junior rankings, in 2010.

During his teen years, Dzumhur also did some acting. He had a part in a 2006 Bosnian film called Grbavica, which was about a single mother who had been raped by Serbian troops during the war. “A very serious, very tough story,” Dzumhur said. The movie won the top prize, called the Golden Bear, at the Berlin International Film Festival. A year later, when Dzumhur was 14, he successfully auditioned for a starring role in a German film called Snipers Valley, about a Kosovar Albanian teenager–-played by Dzumhur—pursuing vengeance in the wake of the Kosovo War. Dzumhur said that he hopes to return to acting after his tennis career. “I would love to do it,” he says. “It’s one of my life goals. It’s something that I do naturally; I don’t have to act too much because I feel good in front of the camera.”

But tennis is the sole priority for now. When he’s not playing tournaments, he does much of his training these days in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, a poignant coda to a childhood spent in war-ravaged Sarajevo (and testament, perhaps, to the healing powers of tennis). Although he is still coached by his father, he said there is much better competition and infrastructure in Belgrade and that the war is ancient history as far as the Serbian tennis community is concerned. He regularly trains with players like Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki and has been made to feel totally welcome. “I am really well-accepted in Belgrade,” he said. “They are really good to me, and I appreciate it.”

Dzumhur’s agent is the delightful John Morris, who also represents Nick Kyrgios. When I spoke with Morris in Indian Wells, he told me that Kyrgios thought Dzumhur had some of the best hands in the men’s game and was top 20 material. Dzumhur was more cautious in assessing his prospects. He said that his improvements have always been incremental and that his goal for 2017 was to break into the top 50. “My progress has never been unbelievable,” he said. “It’s been step by step.” We discussed the challenge of being a shorter player in an era when most of the competition is significantly north of six feet tall. He said the only thing that really bothered him was the ability of the bigger guys to get free points off their serves. “Sometimes, it gets frustrating, knowing that they can serve two or three aces in a tiebreaker,” he said. “But you just have to accept it.” Lacking that kind of firepower, he has to play attritional tennis. “I have got to expect the ball back from my serve, and I have to play longer points," he said. "I am not a guy who can hit two or three aces a game. I have to play without making mistakes, I have to be really fast, and I have to make players not know what to do with the next ball.”

I suspect the scrappiness isn’t just a function of his height, but is also a byproduct of the uniquely difficult circumstances into which he was born. At any rate, I’m a Dzumhur fan, and for all the reasons described above, you should cheer for him, too.

Read more articles by Michael Steinberger

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