It might have been the most intimidating shot in the history of tennis. In Sarajevo, during the horrific Balkan War, a Bosnian Serb sniper in the surrounding hills took aim, fired and obliterated a tennis ball on a city court below as two young Bosnian Serb men played a match.
“We wanted to show them we weren’t afraid,” Russ Hadziabdic told me many years later. “That’s why we continued to play tennis, even then, in the middle of a war.”
I thought of this story the other day while speaking with my wife, who works in Damascus as part of the international humanitarian aid effort. (She works for a major international organization, and asked that we not use her name).
My wife packed her tennis racquet when she moved to Syria a year and a half ago. I wasn’t surprised when, shortly after her deployment, she found a Syrian tennis coach who was willing to hit with her on a hotel court seven days a week.
For my wife, it’s a diversion from the stress of work and the overwhelming sorrow of the Syrian civil war. Aid convoys deliver disappointment and frustration when they fail to reach people in mind-numbing need. Mortars fall indiscriminately in Damascus, creating destruction and fear. A mortar fell on my wife’s hotel on her first day there, graying hair and wracking nerves but thankfully injuring nobody.
“Hitting a tennis ball gets the frustration out of my system so I can go to work with my sanity intact,” she said.
For the coach, teaching my wife is a source of much needed income in Syria’s debilitated wartime economy. It is also an expression of pride, tradition and normality, for he comes from a family of tennis coaches and enthusiasts.
The coach is a lovely man in his early fifties, a former pro who’s fit, tanned and tough. “He doesn’t drink water all day during Ramadan but still plays tennis for hours and hours under the scorching sun,” my wife said. “I drink gallons and he takes nothing. He says he grew up that way.”
The coach is surrounded by a small retinue of local players, a half dozen or so who compete and socialize with one another. They’ve been together for more than 20 years, playing throughout on that hotel hard court. It’s all men except for one woman. The men play in tennis shorts, bare chested.
The group figures the hotel court is as safe as any spot in the city. The place itself is unlikely to be a high-priority military target, although nearby mortar strikes have sprinkled shrapnel onto the field of play. The court nonetheless remains their turf. They have always played there so why stop now?
My wife told me recently that one of the regulars hadn’t showed up for a while.
“This tennis player lives in the old part of Damascus,” she said. “One afternoon he was speaking with a neighbor, a woman, whose house had been hit by a mortar. She miraculously survived. And just as they were having this conversation another mortar landed right where the woman was standing, killing her instantly and injuring the man.” My wife said he has since returned to playing tennis.
What struck my wife most about this story wasn’t the tragic happenstance of it all. It was the dispassionate manner in which her tennis friends recounted what had transpired.
“They appeared calm,” my wife said. “That’s what has happened to ordinary civilians here in Syria who have had to endure so much for so long. I have met many such people. They don’t show anger, they don’t show fear. They simply continue their lives without any ado.”
My wife, her coach and their friends will continue to play tennis in Damascus as long as conditions permit. There is the risk of mortars. But so far they haven’t had to worry about snipers picking off their volleys.
As for me, I sit here in the comfort of my home, sipping a coffee and enjoying professional tennis on TV.
By the way, regarding that Bosnian tennis player who came under fire during the Balkan civil war. He lives in the United States now but visited a peaceful Sarajevo this summer. Armed with a racquet, he returned to the court where the shooting happened. He played tennis there, uneventfully, with his son.