Triumph of persistence on the tennis court

Dodig and Melo’s financial worries and struggle for food did not stop them from going to number two in the tennis world.

2015 French Open - Day Fourteen
The French Open title was the pair's maiden Grand Slam [Getty Images]

Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo are placed second in the tennis’ doubles ranking on the men’s tour.

Their greatest achievement to date was a dramatic win over the Bryan brothers in the French Open final last month which handed the pair its maiden Grand Slam title.

Unfortunately for them, they were unable to repeat the feat at Wimbledon, crashing out in the quarter-finals.

But their journey to the top of the game has been a  triumph of persistence in different ways.

They form a contrasting pairing. Dodig is all-action, explosive hitting, often hurling himself off the ground into his returns and groundstrokes. He stands at six feet tall but is dwarfed by his partner Melo who is eight inches taller.

Seven years ago, a Grand Slam seemed like the most distant of possibilities for Dodig, a journeyman ranked outside the top 400.

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Part of a generation of young players inspired by the nation-building exploits of Goran Ivanisevic, Dodig grew up in the small town of Medjugorje, now part of modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

A few doors down lived the young Marin Cilic, and the two learnt the game on a rudimentary hard court built by Dodig’s uncle. The pair talked about their Olympics and Davis Cup dreams.

In winter, the teenage Dodig would wake up at 6am daily and walk three hours to the nearest indoor facility to train.

He turned professional at 19 but despite Ivanisevic’s success, there was no support for young Croatian players. Based in the Croatian capital by then, he still lacked an adequate and affordable training base and without the funds to travel to many tournaments, it was easy to become disillusioned.

Across the Atlantic, another financial puzzle was about to dictate Melo’s career choices in a defining way.

As a teenager, Melo knew the importance of having strong finances if he wanted to have a shot at the professional game.

Dodig and Melo started playing together in 2012 [Getty Images]

“There are only three to five good academies in the country. To make it far, you need rich parents or a private sponsor.”

Feeling increasingly guilty at the sums his father was investing in his junior career, 15-year-old Melo turned to the Yellow Pages and sent faxes to every marketing company in his city, detailing his achievements and requesting $1,000 in sponsorship.

He received a solitary reply and the company offered $500 per month.

Three years later, the cash flow stopped. A promising doubles player, he thought of quitting singles for good but this was not at option until a wealthy benefactor with a passion for doubles came to his aid.

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“He’d known me for a few years and one day he makes me a deal. He tells me, ‘I don’t need the money back but I’ll only sponsor you if you just play doubles’.

“I said ok and since then he’s funded me and my coach, allowed me to have a good schedule, sometimes even have a physical trainer at tournaments.”

In his early 20s, before his sponsor stepped in, Melo says money was so tight that there were days when he lived solely off bananas during tournaments.

A wry smile sweeps across Dodig’s face as he listens to his partner.

“There were weeks when I didn’t eat at all,” he said. “Just water.”

With no willing sponsors in Croatia, Dodig would scrape together the cash to travel to small professional events in Europe, relying on friends who allowed him to sleep on the floors of their hotel rooms.

There were weeks when I didn’t eat at all. Just water.

by Ivan Dodig, Tennis player

There, he needed to climb through the window to avoid being spotted by staff.

At one tournament in Italy, Dodig reached the doubles final despite surviving on just water all week.

By the eve of the final, he had no money left and nowhere to sleep.

“The hotel was 150 euros a day and for making the final, we got 130 euros after tax,” he said.

“The club had a pool and at midnight, I planned on jumping over the fence, sleeping on the sun loungers and leaving before the staff returned at 6am.”

At 5.45am, Dodig was ready to jump but the staff had arrived early. They caught him and reported the incident to a bemused tournament director.

“I told him I was playing the doubles final but had no money.

“He asked me how I’d play since I hadn’t eaten or slept. He called up the kitchen and asked for some food to be brought over. As things turned out, I lost the final.”

Dodig’s journey through the lower echelons of the game is full of these stories. On many occasions he slept in his car or a friend’s car. At one tournament he even spent the night under a bridge.

Along the way, many of Dodig’s peers simply gave up but after years of sheer resolve and determination, he broke into the world’s top 100 in singles in 2010, winning his first career title a year later and recording wins over Rafael Nadal and Milos Raonic.

In 2012 he joined forces with Melo before the pair reached the Wimbledon final a year later.

“There were a lot of days where I didn’t believe I could make a living from tennis,” Dodig added.

“But at the same time I always had strokes of luck which kept me going. Someone would help me out and give me a place to stay. When you have nothing, these things mean a lot.

“And perhaps the tough times made me stronger. A lot of others have not made it this far. Maybe it was all for the best.”

Source: Al Jazeera