We kept a silence (both in this blog & Twitter) about Sashka’s performance on Winter National Championship U16. The reason is very simple: we both (Sashka & me as a current coach) did not want her story to be just a media hype. At the end of the day, the only thing matters is your game’s quality. Sashka was not “optimized” for this tournament, actually it was not scheduled at all & came last-minute as a replacement for two ITF Grade 5’s in Bosnia which we should skip because of Sashka’s upcoming relocation. But now I can share some details of this unexpected, but deserved victory… as well as several additional paragraphs on such an important & painful issue as Sashka’s (undefined) citizenship.
Days 0 to 2
The tournament was hosted by National Tennis Centre in Zagreb – a venue probably least liked by Sashka in the whole Croatia.
The main reason is a surface, very fast & slippery. It is also quite cold inside, and lighting intensity can vary in different zones of the same tennis court, so your backhand side of the court can be darker than a forehand side :).
At the same time, I should note a good organisation of the tournament by young referee & tournament office team. Everything, from draws to match schedules & special announcements, was timely prepared & distributed. Matches got umpires from “last 8” round… and those umpires were NOT blind, as (sometimes) their older colleagues :))).
We arrived on Friday to stay in an absolutely charming place in Zagreb. It is only 28 EUR / night for 2 guests through Airbnb. It is very nice & comfortable, with all necessary stuff inside. We managed to make some sports shopping on Friday (bought: fitness pad, fitness roller, some special foods like energetic gels & isotonic concentrates), try some burritos in a newly-opened Mexican fast-food… and went to bed soon to let Sashka rest before the first match day.
The draw was not too friendly to Sashka as she got Borna Mohac in the first round and (potentially) Tara Wurth in “last 8”. Borna is a former #1 of national ranking U14, very aggressive left-handed player. She had a wrist injury so went down the ranking list, but now she is OK… so nobody of seeded players wanted her to play against in the beginning of the tournament.
Things seemed to turn to the worst tennis nightmare when Sashka got lost 1:5 after 15 minutes of her very first match! She struggled to “process” fast & well-spinned left-handed forehand shots by Borna, started to panic and make unforced & unnecessary errors. But gradually, point by point, Sashka made that match controlled. She lost the first set 4:6, but won next two 6:1, 6:3.
Sashka’s match vs. Tara Wurth was probably the best one by Sashka on the tournament. Tara is National U16 Masters Champion (Sashka did not play on that tournament) & National Team player. She has an incredible forehand & very good serve. Furthermore, she is from Zagreb so the surface is quite familiar for her.
Speaking honestly, Tara was better prepared to this tournament than Sashka. But you can beat even a stronger opponent if you have a good idea behind you… and a brave heart :).
Sashka’s goal was to shorten points whenever she can – so she must serve & return as active as possible even if it is a bit risky. Sashka also should use angles and “free zones” of the fast court. We knew that if Tara stands on the baseline and starts to “burn” the ball, Sashka’s chances (in her current stance) are not so good. So she should avoid the baseline game at any price!
Sashka was very consistent and disciplined through the whole match. In the second set she felt a pain in a upper back side of her leg, so the quality & danger of her first service decreased. Tara used this to lead the second set to tie breaker, which occured very dramatic: 8:6 for Sashka!
Day 3 & 4
The semifinal was not such an easy walk as you can judge looking to the score. Marina Pavkovic is fast & technically well-equipped player without significant “weak spots”. But that day Sashka was slightly better in almost all components, including most of important points. 6:0, 6:2!
And then, the final came! Sara Zalukar from Zagreb was the second-seeded & probably the most dangerous opponent of all players. She is a tall, long-handed “speed-server” with good skills of entering the court & finishing the point. Plus she has a deadly forehand and footwork good enough to move around many balls flying to backhand side to hit them with her forehand. Her inside outs are specially amazing!
Note that Sashka’s leg injury became worser, so she was not able to jump for an aggressive first serve… So our idea was to use spinned & sliced services on Sashka’s serve, and try to be disciplined and minimize unforced errors on return. Inside points she must keep the ball deep and high, mainly through backhand side of her opponent, and wait for shorter returns to start an attack.
Sashka led 4:1, but then Sara made the score 5:5… Sashka managed to win two more games: 7:5!
Sara totally dominated through the second set while Sashka got passive: 3:6!
The very beginning of the third set was not easy for Sashka: 1:3 and 0:40! Sashka started to cry and ask herself “What can I do against her?” while Sara served extremely good – I think she made more than 15 aces in this match! – and, if necessary, timely enter the court to finish point with cross, inside out, volley or drive volley.
Sashka looked at me, and I showed her just one thing: “Play by your heart…”
And she started to do this! She returned incredibly hard serves. She managed to keep the ball a little deeper than in previous two sets. On her own serves, she added maximum rotation, and tried to immediately attack if a short return appeared! Sashka made a score 3:4, then 5:4, and finished that match with an amazing backhand cross winner! 6:4!
So Sashka became National Champion of Croatia U16! What an (unexpected) gift!
I would like to say “Thanks!” to all people who made this achievement possible… but I’d better do this on Saturday, within our traditional “Thank You Post!” – just not to make this article too long. For now – THANK YOU ALL, #TeamSashka!
Citizenship issue: myths and trues
Some people here in Croatia tend to blame us that we are trying to “trade flag” to change Croatia for another, more prosperous country.
It is completely not true – because of one, very simple reason: Sashka would gladly accept both FOREIGN or CROATIAN citizenship!
Furthermore, we started to look for another citizenship after years of waiting for Croatian passport. It is very difficult to travel & live with refugee’s passport; but it is million times harder when your refugee passport expires in a less than a year, and you do not know at all what’s next…
Unfortunately, during this tournament we discovered several unpleasant facts about Sashka’s inclusion into Croatian tennis process.
First, it was widely talked that National Team U16 is already selected, and Sashka is NOT in it, as three “leading” players of that age ignored the National Championships. The selection was made based on those players ITF Juniors ranking!
It would be completely OK… but here is one fact: during most of 2016 year Sashka was #1 Croatian girl player of their age (15-16 years old) in ITF Juniors ranking list. But she didn’t get an invitation to National Team… because she wasn’t good enough on Nationals (she reached semi in winter, but withdrawn in 2nd round of summer champ because of virus infection)!!!
Well, the National Team selection is all the way responsibility of the coach… Though it looks strange, isn’t it?
Sashka got really, really, really mad about the second issue – a list of junior players who can get a free court time in National Tennis Centre. This list is approved by Croatian tennis federation yearly. It contains about 25 junior girls names from 12 to 18 years old, actually almost everybody of Croatian girl tennis players who is still “in competitive game”. Guess what? There is NO Sashka’s name in that list!
How is this possible that Sashka, a player who’s most of the season was ranked #3 of all Croatian girls in ITF Juniors international ranking, and #1 of 15-16 years old Croatian players, did not get that kind of support from the local federation… but this support went to players who do not have any single point in that ranking system?
The only explanation I can find is that Sashka is “wrong type of Croat” as she basically non-Croat at all. Furthermore, I can accept it: if Croatian members of local tennis federation, parents, directors etc. want to distribute their privileges & resources among Croats only, they are the bosses, and this is their right & responsibility.
But we won’t feel good on this. We definitely won’t.
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