BEIJING: Damir Dzumhur was an actor as a boy, and the story of how he was born in a war zone and later became an elite tennis player would make a great plot for a film.
The 27-year-old Bosnian recounted his story to AFP at the Zhuhai Championships in China, where he was into the quarter-finals and chasing a fourth ATP title.
It was spring 1992, and Bosnian Serb troops had enforced a deadly siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo which would drag on for 44 months.
Heavily pregnant Zaneta braved the shelling and sniper fire and negotiated barricades to reach hospital. On May 20, she gave birth to a boy, risking her life to give Dzumhur one.
“On May 21, my uncle came to pick us up from the hospital and on May 22, the hospital was evacuated and then bombed,” Dzumhur said.
“We were lucky that we had someone to pick us up and we had somewhere to go for the first few months.
“I know that for my mother that was the toughest and the worst — but at the same time the best — time of her life.
“You have a baby, you just gave birth, but you are in the middle of a war with nowhere to go and you don’t have your husband with you.”
Many people had fled Sarajevo and Dzumhur’s father Nerfid, who was later to introduce him to tennis, did not meet his son until he was nearly one.
“After 11 months, he somehow got back into the city to see me so he was risking his life to see me also,” Dzumhur said.
– Destroyed, burnt –
Sarajevo’s 350,000 residents struggled to get basic necessities and at least 10,000 were killed by sniping and shelling by Serbs.
Dzumhur was too young to remember the full extent of the panic, chaos and death, but it was in the immediate aftermath that he began playing tennis as a small boy under the tutelage of his father.
It was a journey that would take him to 23rd in the world rankings last year, although his progress this season has been stilted by injuries.
He began practising at Sarajevo’s Zetra Olympic Hall, which had suffered extensive damage from bombing and been used as a morgue, as well as a place for refugees.
It is all a far cry from Florida or Barcelona, the sorts of places where many of the world’s top tennis players grew up learning the game on pristine courts.
“Zetra was still destroyed, windows were blown out and one part was all burnt,” said Dzumhur.
As part of its reconstruction, they built an ice hockey rink next to the tennis court.
“It was barely warm enough to feel the racquet in your hand,” he laughed.
– ‘Special inside’ –
As a young teenager, Dzumhur got a minor role in the award-winning film “Grbavica”, then soon after landed a leading part in a German movie filmed in Sarajevo.
“The first time I earned money in my life was from the movies,” he said, adding that he would consider returning to acting one day.
But that is for the future and the fiercely proud Bosnian said that the circumstances in which he was brought into the world drive him to make a success of his tennis career.
“Knowing where you come from and those days, those years, and knowing it was not easy to go through everything since I was young, it really makes you special inside,” he said.
“In the end, every sacrifice comes with a good end and happy end.”