For a Native Son of Bosnia, a Serenade in Australia
Damir Dzumhur had only earned $93,796 in prize money in his career before this week. He will pocket $75,000 for reaching the third round of the Australian Open
MELBOURNE, Australia — The shouts of delight on Court 13 at the Australian Open were never louder on Wednesday than when the old man began to play his accordion.
The notes of the accordion, an unlikely soundtrack to Grand Slam tennis, were soon accompanied by full-throated singing of Bosnian folk songs, with roughly 50 fans in blue and yellow singing along, swaying with their arms around one another and waving flags.
Damir Dzumhur, a 21-year-old from Sarajevo, wanted to sing along with them. But he had a match to finish.
“I know the words of all the songs, I know, but I just couldn’t sing in a match,” Dzumhur said in an interview afterward. “I would like to sing with them, you know? Inside myself, I was singing, but I just couldn’t say it loud.”
After having lost the first two sets of his second-round match, Dzumhur won the third set over the 32nd seed, Ivan Dodig of Croatia. Then, after receiving treatment for back pain before the fourth set began, Dodig began to cramp in his right leg early in the set. He forfeited the next six points in order to receive treatment, which is allowed only during changeovers. When play resumed, Dodig could not move, leaving Dzumhur to hit easy aces and uncontested return winners before Dodig retired eight points later and the mass of Bosnian fans pressed forward to the edge of the court.
Spectators cheered and waved the Bosnian flag on Wednesday during the match between Damir Dzumhur, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ivan Dodig of Croatia. More than 9,000 residents of Victoria State, of which Melbourne is the capital, were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After greeting and high-fiving the cluster of Bosnian fans who had been chanting his name and singing, Dzumhur crossed to the other side of the court to reach his father and coach, Nerfid Dzumhur, who wiped away tears as he leaned over the fence to hug his son.
“I saw that Ivan Dodig retired — in that moment I was just too emotional,” said Nerfid Dzumhur, who spoke in Bosnian that was translated by his son. “I couldn’t stop. I was crying a lot and I couldn’t stop. I also couldn’t believe that he’s in the third round.”
Though the match had been boisterous, the harmony of the finish was a marked contrast to the discord and violence into which Dzumhur had been born just over two decades ago.
“When Damir was born, in 1992, he was born on 20th of May, and the war started in April,” Nerfid Dzumhur recalled. “And the hospital that he was in was evacuated just one day after he was born. So my brother came to Damir and his mother and took him when he was born, back to my brother’s home.”
Nerfid Dzumhur, who was stranded in the city of his birth, Konjic, did not see Damir until his son was 8 months old. “I wasn’t thinking about leaving Bosnia — I was just thinking about seeing Damir in the first couple of months,” Nerfid Dzumhur said. “That was the most important thing, just how to come to Sarajevo. Because it was really dangerous.”
Shortly after he returned to Sarajevo, Nerfid Dzumhur and another tennis coach started a club in the city, braving the threat of death that was a fact of life at that time. “It was almost every day dangerous,” he said.
“As Sarajevo is in a valley, all around, on the hills, on the mountains, there were dangers, snipers, and everything which could kill you,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking too much about that. I just wanted to do the job and hope that everything would be O.K., from day to day.”
Mindful of those threats, Nerfid Dzumhur would not allow children to play on the exposed courts.
“In the first couple years, we just couldn’t have a school of tennis,” he recalled. “We were coaching the players, but just not the small kids. It was just too dangerous, too dangerous to be that long on the court.”
But when the conflict began to recede, it became safe enough for children, including 3-year-old Damir, to play.
“I just loved the sport,” Damir Dzumhur said of his early years at the club. “Nobody pushed me into that. It was a big love, and definitely I’m really happy now that I started with tennis, because it’s a beautiful sport. It’s definitely the one that I want the most.”
Dzumhur, a speedy 5-foot-9 blur of a counterpuncher who had been ranked as high as third in the world as a junior, won three qualifying matches before the Open to become the first man representing Bosnia and Herzegovina to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam. Now, after winning two matches in the main draw, Dzumhur’s current ranking of 188th is set to jump more than 40 spots.
The improvement in the rankings will be accompanied by a sizeable paycheck for making it this far. That is welcome news for a player whose wallet has been stretched thin while playing the lower levels of the professional game. Dzumhur, who had only earned $93,796 in prize money in his career before this tournament, will pocket $75,000 for reaching the third round. He will face No.7 Tomas Berdych in a third-round match on Friday for a chance to reach the fourth round and an additional $60,000.
Dzumhur said the fans who greeted him after the match promised to come in even larger numbers on Friday.
“Now they told me on Friday it will be even better,” he said. “I don’t know if they can be better than this, but for me they are definitely the best, and I think they are the loudest in Melbourne Park.”
It is a welcome Dzumhur did not expect so far from home. “Really, I’m playing Australian Open, and I feel like I’m playing some Bosnian Open,” he added. “I feel like I’m at home, really. This is an amazing thing, the spectators, the fans, they’re just unbelievable.”
That Melbourne offered a bastion of support was not surprising. The2011 Australian census showed that more than 9,000 residents of Victoria State, of which Melbourne is the capital, were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But Bosnian fans have often been less appreciated by other players. That includes Dodig, an ethnic Croat who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, less than 10 miles from the Croatian border.
Dodig took particular issue with cheers that consistently erupted after he missed first serves, and even when he was called for foot faults.
“I think this was not a tennis atmosphere,” he said. “These people came on the wrong site, they should be at a soccer match or somewhere, because probably they know nothing about tennis.”
Matches in Melbourne between players from the former Yugoslavia have occasionally ended with fan skirmishes in past years, including a match in 2009 between Amer Delic, a Bosnian-born American, and Novak Djokovic, a Serb, in which volleys of punches, kicks and even airborne chairs were exchanged.
Wednesday’s match, however, ended peacefully. The scattered fans wearing the red-and-white checkers of the Croatian crest who had been cheering for Dodig mingled peacefully with the Bosnians, who appreciatively chanted Dodig’s name as he limped off the court.