The city of Sarajevo is fated to be forever linked to the assassination that ignited World War 1. It’s also where I decided to begin my around-the-world trip playing in senior tennis tournaments. No, I don’t have delusions of grandeur. I simply decided that it would be preferable to start my journey in Eastern Europe and work my way westward into the heart of Europe after the hectic summer tourism season.
Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has a population of around 400,000. The word for Sarajevo is quaint. The city is ringed by mountains, which are clustered on all sides with houses, every last one of them with an orange-tile, Florida-style roof. The delightful Old City is a maze of cobblestone streets and alleys dating from Ottoman times. Being situated in a valley means that Sarajevo gets very hot. On both the day I arrived and the next, the temperature was around ninety and it was extremely humid. In New York City I would not consider such days fit for tennis.
I had registered for the tournament online but no one had contacted me concerning my starting time. And I hadn’t been able to reach them by phone. The thing to do, I decided, was to get there at nine AM and hope for the best.
The Teniski Center Hotonj was located at Donjoni Hotonji 11/3. Would I even be able to find such an odd-sounding address? However, everyone I pproached for directions seemed to think it was a normal address and I was able to find it without much difficulty.
The Teniski Center Hotonj turned out to be a pleasantly seedy facility with four serviceable, though unbrushed, red clay courts. But where was everybody? I expected dozens of recreational players to be milling around. Only one of the courts was being used. Four trained juniors, three boys and a girl, were playing friendly doubles. I watched them for awhile. There is no mistaking the strokes of the trained tennis player. They have a power and elegance that those of us who learned the game as adults can only dream about. As is generally the case when one female is playing doubles with three males, she was probably the strongest player.
Finally a man emerged from behind the pro shop, apparently the tournament director. There had been a mix-up, he explained. My event would be beginning not today but tomorrow. I told him I could be back at nine tomorrow morning.
I rode the tram back to the Old City where my hostel was located. Sarajevo’s public transportation system consists of dilapidated buses and even more dilapidated trams. I noticed that many passengers would enter from the rear door and simply take a seat. Others would enter through the front door and just walk past the driver. As far as I could see, the idea seems to be that if you want to pay the fare you can; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. When I showed up at the courts the next day I was told that my opponent was a no-show. “He’s from Serbia,” the tournament director explained, “I don’t have his phone number.” And the tournament, at least the mens 55 division, was being switched to a round robin format. I would be playing a guy who was already playing. So I ended up waiting three hours until his match was finished.
My opponent was one of those short-legged guys who are much better than you think they’re going to be. The day was another scorcher and the heat affected me almost immediately. The match was the kind of match that even leading 3-0 in the second set after having dropped the first, you know you’re going to lose. Which I did, albeit in a second set tiebreak. Afterwards, I managed to catch my breath long enough to tell the director I couldn’t play another match that day.
The next day’s match was more of the same. I lost in straight sets to a tall white-haired lefty named Miroslav. Afterwards, the director presented me with a basket full of items, including a T-shirt with Bosnian writing on it (“If it’s not perfect, it’s not Ledo ice cream.”), a DVD on the history of FIFA and a bottle of the local Merlot. I thanked him, regretting I hadn’t caught his name when we introduced ourselves.
“That’s Bosnia,” he said proudly, clasping my hands.
I left Sarajevo the next morning with fond memories. My next stop would be Arad Romania. Reputedly they have the finest tennis facility in Transylvania. Next >>