The top three players on Temple’s women’s tennis team hail from the small, but competitive country of Croatia.
The country has predominantly been known for crafting Olympians. Specifically, most of the athletes gaining worldwide attention come from the small city of Split, Croatia.
Across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Split is the home of well-known professional athletes such as tennis pro Goran Ivanisevic and NBA stars Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja.
Temple has the honor of having three great tennis players from the athlete-producing city. Senior captain Danira Penic leads the way, along with Lara Ercegovic and sophomore Ana Maslesa – all three can give opponents a long day on the court.
The trio is close-knit and they have played together for most of their lives.
“Lara’s mom would dress her up in all white and then at the end of the day be covered in all red,” Peric said, who has known Ercegovic since they were six. “She would be playing in the red clay drawing pictures and making clay castles.”
Ercegovic, the youngest of the three, has a strong tennis background that was instilled in her at a young age.
“My mom and dad played tennis,” she said. “My sister was top 60 in the world. Monica Seles used to be Yugoslavian. My sister was No. 2 in Yugoslavia while Monica Seles was No. 1. I’ve played ever since I was able to walk. I grew up on the tennis court.”
In Croatia, when athletes turn 18, they have big decisions to make. Either they go on to college or pursue a professional athletics career. The risk is great if they fail at the pro level.
“You have to make one decision,” Ercegovic said. “It’s a huge risk to turn pro, because you can’t get an American scholarship if you don’t make it. It’s [America] a great opportunity to play at a good level and get a great education. If you put your whole self into going pro, and get injured then you have nothing with no education.”
Penic plays No. 1 singles and is the reigning Atlantic Ten Player of the Year.
“I’ve been to the United States many times before coming to Temple,” Penic said. “I first came when I was 13 to play in tournaments in Florida. I was traveling all around playing international competition.”
At the under-18 level, Penic played in the Junior Wimbledon and Junior U.S. Open events. She has faced tough competition, like Justine Henin-Hardenne, currently the top-ranked female player in the world.
Training in Croatia is a lot more demanding than the average college in the United States. As the 10th Croatian to play for Temple, Ana Maslesa would train for hours on end.
“I trained a lot, like five or six hours a day,” Maslesa said. “I would practice from six to eight in the morning before school, then three to six in the evening.”
In the summer she played even more. During the hottest hours of the day, when nobody else was around, she would practice by herself.
Because of only one private tennis club in Split, the trio had to find suitable times to practice amongst other players.
Penic, Ercegovic and Maslesa have been a big part of Temple’s success in the recent past.
“I have a strong connection with Croatia,” coach Tracy Tooke said. “I haven’t had to recruit for the top one, two, three spots since I’ve been here. When I got here in the fall of ’98, we had three Croatians. I walked right into it.”
Four years ago, Penic and Ercegovic added to the strong Croatian bond.
“Me and Lara came the same year here together, her cousin was a senior here and there were two other Croatians,” Penic said. “We had a total of five Croatians on the team.”
All three of them have contributed to Temple more than any other foreign players have in the past. After college, Maslesa plans to turn pro, while Penic and Ercegovic plan to move back home, where they can put their college degrees to use.
Jake Hendy can be reached at email@example.com.