IT TOOK TWO BUS RIDES AND A RAFT FOR AMER DELIC AND HIS FAMILY TO REACH RELATIVE SAFETY IN CROATIA DURING THE BOSNIAN WAR. THE ONLY JOB HIS MOTHER COULD LAND IN CROATIA WAS AS A BARTENDER AT THE LOCAL TENNIS COURTS. DELIC’S HANGOUT SPOT TRANSFORMED INTO HIS HOME, AS HE SPENT MORE TIME PLAYING — WITH 8- AND 80-YEAR OLDS ALIKE. TODAY, THE 33-YEAR-OLD HOPES TO USE TENNIS TO HELP HIS HOME COUNTRY CONTINUE ITS EFFORTS TO RECOVER FROM THE WAR.
THE DOUBLE BAGEL SAT DOWN WITH DELIC TO DISCUSS HIS EARLY MEMORIES OF THE GAME, HIS FAMILY’S EXPERIENCES AS REFUGEES AND HIS DECISION TO PLAY COLLEGE TENNIS AT ILLINOIS.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF PLAYING TENNIS?
As a kid living in Bosnia, I had some serious health issues, mostly with my lungs. My parents thought it would be a good idea to get me to play sports to try and expand my lung capacity. My dad’s friends had older kids, and they all played tennis but no one in my family played tennis at the time. One day my dad showed up with a wooden tennis racket and said, “I signed you up for tennis. I think you will like it!” At the time, all I played was soccer on the streets with my friends. I was 6 years old.
HOW DID YOUR FIRST MEMORIES OF PLAYING TENNIS SHAPE YOUR EARLY INTEREST IN THE GAME?
I was always tall for my age, and maybe that helped my confidence early on. I was pretty athletic even at an early age, and growing up on red clay taught me how to move properly. Initially I liked tennis, but I can‘t say that I really loved it. I loved playing soccer with my friends. It took a little bit of pushing from my parents initially, but I am glad they did!
DID YOU FEEL AN IMMEDIATE CONNECTION TO THE GAME, AND DID IT COME NATURALLY TO YOU FROM THE START?
I started playing tennis in 1988. My first experience as a refugee was in 1992 when my sister, mom and I escaped our hometown on one of the last buses transporting women and children. I had an uncle who lived in Zagreb, Croatia, which was still at war at the time but was a lot safer than Bosnia. It took two bus rides and a raft for us to cross the river and the border to Croatia, but we made it. My dad had to stay and fight. As a matter of fact, if he had been on that same bus, he probably would have been killed with the other men who were taken off that bus as we crossed the enemy territory. We ended up living with my uncle and his family in Zagreb for the next three-and-a-half years. The only job my mom could get was at the local tennis courts as a bartender. I started hanging out at the courts with my mom all day playing with 8- and 80-year-olds. That‘s the only reason I continued to play tennis.
HOW DID GROWING UP IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA DURING AN UNSTABLE TIME AFFECT YOUR TENNIS, WHETHER THAT‘S FROM A PSYCHOLOGICAL STANDPOINT OR OTHER BARRIERS?
Once the peace treaty was signed and the war was over, my family had a choice to either go back to Bosnia or to apply for a visa somewhere and start a new life! Our cousin went through a similar process and ended up in Jacksonville, Fla. Because of my cousin, my family also ended up in Jacksonville with four bags, $1,000 and not a word of English. That was on April 2, 1996. Tennis was definitely not a priority. The whole reason my parents took this risk was not for themselves, but for my sister and me. One of the things that I packed in those four bags were two of my Wilson rackets. I quickly realized that my tennis abilities would open up many doors down the road.
WHO WERE YOUR TENNIS ROLE MODELS OR ICONS GROWING UP, AND HOW DID THEY INFLUENCE YOUR PASSION FOR THE SPORT?
Growing up I watched Goran Ivanisevic and Monica Seles (a lot of people forget that she played for Yugoslavia before she started playing for USA). However, my all-time favorite player was Stefan Edberg. His style and class were unmatched. Soon after my arrival in Jacksonville, a local newspaper came out with an article about this “Bosnian tennis refugee.” At the time, the ATP had its headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach which was 30 minutes away from where we lived, and they heard about me and wanted to help out. Because my parents didn‘t have a car, they sent transportation for me and gave me a bag of clothes. This was all led by Ricardo Acuna and Brian Gottfried. Once I arrived there, Todd Martin and Malivai Washington were training and let me hit with them. It was an unbelievable experience and something I will never forget. Ricardo became a second father to me and coached me once I turned pro, along with Bobby Reynolds, Brian Baker and Rajeev Ram. Todd, Brian and Mal have all stayed very close friends to this day.
TAKE ME THROUGH YOUR DECISION TO PLAY TENNIS AT ILLINOIS. WHY WAS COLLEGE TENNIS A GOOD FIT FOR YOU?
I was an unranked and unknown kid until my second year in 16s. I wasn‘t allowed to play any sanctioned tournaments until I got my green card. I went from unranked to No. 1 in Florida and Top-5 in the Nation. I started receiving recruiting letters early on from a lot of the schools, but to be honest, I had no idea what college tennis was, especially college tennis in the middle of Illinois! My parents had zero input in my decision. I did it all on my own. I was scheduled for a few other trips to well known schools my senior year, but after my trip to Champaign (cold, wet and windy, coming from Florida), I canceled all of my other trips and committed that following Monday evening. Best decision I ever made (besides marrying my wife)!
My experience at Illinois was something I will never forget. It wasn‘t just a team. It’s a family culture that [legendary former Illinois head coach] Craig [Tilley] built. My hope is to continue that tradition along with all the other alums. On another hand, I am also a Davis Cup Captain for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being a DC Captain is the best platform for me to help all the young talent that we have. Our neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, have had amazing success, which was directly correlated to the success in the Davis Cup. My hope is to install that same belief in my players. Their success can be the positive news that helps rest of the country as it continues its rebuilding process 20 years after the war!
Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images