Amer Delic Takes the Big Stage
The Jacksonville native’s new Top 75 standing makes him a regular at ATP Tour events — and poses a set of new challenges
When asked whether his ranking qualified him to play the big ATP grasscourt events in the run-up to Wimbledon in June, Amer Delic said with pride, “I am straight into all the events from now on.” A pride hard earned.
No longer forced to slog through minor-league Challenger-level events in locations as disparate as Zagreb, Croatia and Bermuda (while the Bermuda Challenger isn’t exactly a “slog”), Delic’s Top 75-ranking now allows him direct entry into the Grand Slams and ATP events outside the elite Masters Series designation.
It has been quite the rise for the Jacksonville native who roughly one year ago was ranked No. 200. In 2006 Delic lost in the qualifying at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, denying him even a shot at the main draw big stage, and the big ranking points associated with it. His year was made worse by a serious ankle injury in March ’06 that had him questioning his playing career.
“Last year I was actually on crutches. I was playing a Sunrise [Florida] Challenger event, which was the week before NASDAQ [Miami], or NASDAQ at the time, and I rolled my ankle so bad I was carried off the court on the cart.” Delic said. “I came back like six weeks later or whatever. I was actually doing rehab while this was all going on, and that was one of the most painful things, when you knew you could be playing, and instead you’re watching.”
After a difficult stretch of rehabilitation, Delic returned to the courts, playing so badly he considered re-enrolling at the University of Illinois, which he left to turn pro after winning the NCAA Championship.
“I came back about six weeks later and I was playing, but it was not — nothing good,” Delic said. “I was ranked, whatever, 180, 190, nothing was really going well. Wimbledon qualies, lost first round. I was already thinking about Plan B, which was going back to school in the fall. Yeah, just continuing my education. I had one year left at [the] University of Illinois, and I was literally telling my friends, ‘Guys, I think this could be it.’ So I was kind of running on fumes, literally. I didn’t know — I gave it a shot, and then I was like, ‘Maybe this is not for me.'”
Ready to give up the game, Delic was talked into playing through the end of the summer hardcourt season by his parents. This was the same time that he hooked up with his current coach, Paul Pisani, stripping his game down and starting from scratch.
“I had about 10 days at home before the next tournament. That was initially the first time I went to working out with Paul, just absolute basic stuff, which I never used to do before,” said Delic, who at Wolfson High in Jacksonville was known as an extremely-talented player who wasn’t exactly a workhorse when it came to drills or off-court training. “I would never take out a bucket of balls and hit serves. For years and years it just came naturally to me. But in matches my serve percentage would go from like 40 to 80, and it was just up and down, up and down. I just went back to basics and became a little more consistent.”
The training paid dividends, and toward the end of 2006 Delic saw the results in titles and runner-up efforts on the Challenger circuit.
“I kind of did well at one of the Challengers, did well at the next one, and kind of got this confidence going,” Delic said. “Ended up in the fall, I believe I had done nine Challengers. I had six finals, two semifinals, and I won two titles, and that got me from 200 exactly to 92 in the world. Then I started off the year Top 100, and that was a big confidence boost. Then I was like, ‘All right, let’s see how far I can keep this going.'”
Delic failed to advance past the second round in his first seven events in 2007 until March when his game caught fire on the hardcourts at the Masters Series-Miami. The 6-foot-5 Floridian utilized his big serve to successfully navigate the qualifying draw, then in the main draw downed No. 40-ranked Julien Benneteau, No. 37 Jose Acasuso, and shocked world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko for his first Top 10 win and a bonanza of ranking points.
“This was great. Especially playing in front of my family here,” said Delic after the win. “My dad is down here, and a lot of the friends that I’ve met throughout the years are here because I used to train here with the USTA, Key Biscayne Center, and friends from college that stayed here. So I would stay with them, just crashed with them while I was practicing here. So it’s great to play in front of them and actually win.”
Argentina’s No. 25-ranked Juan Ignacio Chela defeated Delic in the fourth round at Miami, but the effort was enough to elevate him into the Top 70, the cutoff to consistently gain entry to main tour events.
Seeing talented teens such as Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet burst on the scene while he went off to college instead of turning pro made Delic anxious. But he also had the insight to realize he wasn’t ready for the grind of minor-league Futures and Challenger events, scrapping to make it as a pro player as a teenager.
“I actually had a chance when I was 17, to possibly turn pro also, but I didn’t have the financial support,” Delic said. “But that wasn’t even the biggest issue. The biggest issue was that I was not mature enough to handle all this. Because if tennis or professional tennis was just about hitting tennis balls, there would be a lot of players that are better than me. But it’s not. There’s so much outside the tennis court that you have to learn to deal with, and going to college has helped me mature and try to work with those things. The three years in college were like a stepping stone for me. It has helped me mature — I did not struggle as some of the younger guys that never really went to college. I feel it has helped me.”
Much has been written about Delic’s family immigrating to the U.S. from war-torn Bosnia when he was 13 years old and didn’t speak a word of English in 1996.
“There’s Lutheran Social Services in Jacksonville, and they would sponsor families, and they would pay for the tickets and kind of take care of you for the first month,” Delic said of his chance to come to the U.S. “At the time a few of the families had an opportunity to start really a new life in another country, and it was a cousin of mine that came to Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where he was sent, literally. We kind of came six months after him, and during our interview they asked us, ‘Do you have any family?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we have a cousin.’ They said, ‘All right.’ That’s where you’re going. Otherwise we would have ended up in Cincinnati or St. Louis or whatnot. I was just fortunate. Did I know the ATP Headquarters was there? No clue. It’s honestly just been luck and it’s kind of snowballed since.”
Four years later he was a high school graduate with a tennis scholarship to Illinois. Three years later he was an NCAA champion, and left Illinois for the pro tour. Critics of today’s weak American representation among the top men and women in the world point to the soft American lifestyle, as opposed to many of the Eastern European players who are hungrier for success. Delic says that he like many of his European counterparts he can perhaps appreciate even more the opportunities the U.S. has afforded him.
“I don’t want to make a big drama out of this, but I appreciate some things I think a little bit more, and it’s helped me,” Delic says. “I wouldn’t say some of the other kids are spoiled, but I definitely, as I said, appreciate some things a little bit more. My parents came over literally with four bags, $1,000. And one of the things that I brought were two of my racquets, and it’s just — I’ve been fortunate that, as I said, landing in Jacksonville, Florida — great weather, plenty of tennis courts.”
Coach Paul Pisani began working with Delic last year at the Memphis event when they realized they were neighbors — Pisani had just relocated to Amelia Island from Los Angeles after previously working with another American player, Robby Ginepri.
“I think that what is important for Amer is to realize that he is facing tougher opponents each week and that he has to prepare that much more diligently and professionally day in and day out,” Pisano says of his pupil’s new standing among the ATP elite. “He has to have the mindset of getting better, not winning and losing…learning from his mistakes, and not making the same mistake twice.”
Once a player cracks the talent level of the Top 75, Pisani says much of the challenge from then on depends on one’s confidence and mental fortitude.
“So much of the process now is mental,” Pisano says. “Like Rod Laver said, ‘A tennis player has to have a good case of amnesia. Whether you won the last point, or lost it, it’s not going to help you on the next point.’ He’s got to become the modern day Jedi master with his racquet and Nike attire.”
One challenge for the coach is balancing his pupil’s laid-back nature with a need to be aggressive on court.
“Amer by nature is a passive type of guy,” Pisani says. “He’s a shot-maker and is an artist with the racquet. He grew up on slow red clay in Europe and that is something that isn’t going to go away. So having said that, I have tried to help him be an all-courter…someone who is able to hang back, grind, and look for the opportunity to take the offense. I would like to see him be more aggressive, but not to force that issue. Personally, I like a player that can grind down opponents, but also one that is smart and tactful. Amer just needs to ‘see’ his opportunity to strike and then take it. With the grass [season] upon us, we will place greater emphasis on returns, serves and volleys. I’d like to see him come in a little bit more off his return, put pressure on his opponent, and impose his ‘big bozz’ will on the guy across the net.”
Now, says Pisani, Delic needs to take advantage of matches at the tour level to ‘feel’ the game against the top players in the world, develop his confidence and play smart tennis.
“He needs to become more of a fortune teller with one of those super-cool crystal balls when he is playing — meaning he needs to be able to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ when he needs to come in and knock off the volley,” Pisani says of Delic. “Also he needs to be able to play the score better. Attack more when the pressure is on the opponent and stay on top of him until he hears ‘Game, set, match, Delic.’ Also, he needs to become more consistent. He’s not going to beat my newborn boy Maximus if he makes five fistfuls of errors in a match. We’ve been working on that, so I hope that work will pay some dividends.”
Another aspect of tour play Delic admittedly needs to hone is his grasscourt game.
“As many people think that grass would be my favorite surface to compete on, being that I am 6’5″, most of those people are wrong,” Delic says. “It’s quite opposite actually. I grew up on red clay and to this day I really enjoy playing on clay more than any other surface. However, my best results have come on hardcourts. Grass comes in the last place. Why? I am not quite sure yet. I am still trying to figure it out before Wimbledon comes around. Maybe it’s because I haven’t spent enough time on it. Maybe it’s because I don’t really know how to use my strengths on it.”
Delic has done a lot of off-court work to physically transform himself from the gangly, happy-go-lucky teen who blew past the Jacksonville high school competition to the chiseled, gun-bearing physical specimen in the sleeveless Nike shirts. The strength is there for the late-blooming tour rookie who turned 25 on June 30 — now comes the task of developing the strength between the ears that will bring him a coveted first tour title and a climb further up the ranks.
“I don’t think too many guys can really just blow the ball past me,” Delic says. “I think physically I can handle it, and just mentally it’s going out there and being able to stay focused the whole match.”
This article originally appeared in the July issue of JAX Tennis Magazine, covering Jacksonville and Northeast Florida. Media kit at www.jaxtennismagazine.com
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