Croatian tennis players forge close-knit bond on WTA tour

Croatian tennis players forge close-knit bond on WTA tour

Life can get lonely when you are a professional tennis player being out on the road. You can be away from home 10 months out of the year playing in tournaments across the globe.

Like many tennis players on the WTA tour, friendships are forged with fellow players as they see each other more than their friends and families. They are usually playing in the same tournaments and/or practicing with each other. It’s the kind of friendships that develop close bonds.

One bond that has developed over the past few years has been the one between Donna Vekic and Ajla Tomljanovic. Both ladies are Croatian and were born in the Balkan country.

Both Donna and Ajla played this week in San Jose at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, which concludes today with the finals in both singles and doubles. The tournament, celebrating its 50th year, is the first one in the US Open hardcourt series. Neither of them made it past the round of 16 this year, but Vekic was a semifinalist back in 2019, the last time the tournament was played.

Being a first-generation Croatian myself, I have been following their careers. Knowing they were both coming to play in San Jose for the tournament formerly known as the Bank of the West Classic, I had a chance to speak with both players after their respective matches to talk about their close-knit bond.

Vekic grew up in Osijek, which is the fourth largest city in Croatia. Tomljanovic was born in the Croatia’s capital of Zagreb before moving to Florida when she was 13 to begin her tennis training. Tomljanovic has Australian citizenship. When she competes, she represents the country Down Under.

“I really believed with Australia I can maybe make the big jump, and reach a new level with my tennis, and that was a big thing,” Tomljanovic said back in 2014 after having obtained permanent residency in her adoptive country.

Donna and Ajla’s friendship really began to bloom a few years ago, despite them knowing each other when they were younger. Vekic turned professional back in 2012 when she was only 16 years old. Tomljanovic began her professional career in October of 2008.

“We have Maria (Sakkari) as a really close friend as well,” said Vekic. “We’re kind of a like a little group. Having close friends like that on tour really makes a difference. It makes the experience a lot more fun. I think maybe in the last two or three years we got closer. All three of us at the same time.”

“We always knew each other from a young age, but we did get closer maybe in the last three years or so. I don’t know exactly why it was at the time, but they (Vekic and Sakkari) were really good friends before and I kind of met Maria (Sakkari) separately. I don’t know it (the bonding) was very natural. I’ve known Donna for a very long time. The more time we started spending together, it felt familiar,” Tomljanovic said.

Both players were just in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Vekic playing for her native Croatia and Tomljanovic for Australia. Each of them was first time Olympians and relished the experience despite the games not having fans in attendance due to the Covid-19 pandemic that had a surge in cases right before the games began on July 23.

“That was a great experience, and I had a good couple of matches in Tokyo. It was my first Olympics, and it was great to see all the different athletes from all the different sports. It was definitely a great experience,” Vekic said.

Vekic, who had surgery on her right knee back in February, used the Olympics to get her tennis game going and regain the confidence she had before the surgery.

“I played three good matches, long matches. For me, I hope to take these matches with me, take some confidence from that. I didn’t use it this week but there’s always next week. That’s the good thing about tennis. Overall, I’m really looking forward to the next Olympics in Paris. It’s very different (experience) from playing in our every other week tournaments. So, it’s good to be part of a (national) team,” Vekic said.

For Tomljanovic she soaked up every second of being in Tokyo and how much it meant to her competing in her first Olympics.

“It was incredible, there were so many protocols before going there that we had to do that it felt so heavy at one point with all the times I had to get tested and all the paperwork. But once I got there it was more than worth it. The (athlete’s) village was amazing. Seeing other athletes and then competing.”

Tomljanovic credits her dad, being a former Olympian and professional athlete in handball, taught her the value of what it means to play for the love of your country.

“It kind of sunk in that it’s so special to be an Olympian. It’s like all the best athletes in the world. It’s kind of like the pinnacle of your career in a way. And my dad instilled that in me a little bit throughout my life cause he played handball in the Olympics and team handball is like the biggest thing (in Croatia). Knowing that you’re going to play there for a medal. It’s not for points, it’s not for money, it’s purely for (the love of) your country and to win an Olympic medal is incredible,” Tomljanovic said.

Ajla had such a good time in Tokyo, she wants to be at the next Summer Games in 2024 when they will be held in Paris, France.

“Obviously with the fans it would’ve been even better, but even without it was incredible. It was my first Olympics, and I heard some people say, ‘Oh I’m fine, I already played (in) one’. I’m fine to not play in one again’, I definitely don’t feel that (way). I want to play in the next one. So yeah, I had really, really great time,” Tomljanovic said.

When they’re not on the tennis court playing on the WTA tour, they liked to hangout and take trips together. They rarely talk about tennis off the court.

“We were actually in Croatia together before (heading to) Tokyo (for the Olympic games). We were on the islands (of Croatia). When we practice and play, there’s not a lot of free time. Just to be able to go out to dinner with her and some friends was nice,” Vekic said.

“We actually planed it. We’ve always talked about going somewhere after Wimby (Wimbledon). There are some good hardcourts outside on the island that we went (to). So, we were all there and it was for only like four or five days, but it was perfect,” Tomljanovic said.

Both players admit they don’t like to face off against one another but if so be it, they have a healthy rivalry with one another and root for the other when the other one is on the court.

“It’s just really nice, the older you are, you kind of appreciate some of the good friendships you make on tour because it’s lonely and it’s good to have good friends. We’re pretty good at finding that balance of being competitive and being friends. I’m really happy to make friends like that on tour,” said Tomljanovic.

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