Well, who is going to work in the fields?
When my grandfather asked this of my father, who was 14 years old, his fate was sealed: he was going to start his life in the tobacco fields. One of my father’s uncles, who was the manager of a football club, had visited them in Medjugorje, a very small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He wanted to take my dad to Croatia to continue his studies and let him play football, which was exciting because he really liked playing the sport.
But my father had to stay at home to support my grandparents in the fields and vineyards. My grandparents only knew how to make a living by hard means, and they couldn’t do it alone. By the time my father had a vision beyond the fields – he finally went into business – it was too late for him. Staying home early in life prevented him from pursuing his childhood dreams. This was never going to be the way for me; my parents were determined to break that cycle.
Medjugorje has less than 4,000 inhabitants and is known for its appearances in Saint Mary, not for its sporting successes. The city’s first tennis court was built just a few years before I took up the sport, which became more popular with the rise of Goran Ivanisevic. My parents pushed me a bit to get into tennis, especially because my uncle and cousin, who were living in Germany at the time, were playing. When I was seven years old, they came to our house, and that’s when I started playing tennis. There were very few resources in the area, however, and the terrain I started on was uneven and in poor condition.
That’s where my dad’s love for building came in. He had never played tennis, only watched TV. But while others in our area were building office space and letting space for businesses, he was instead imagining things my brothers and I could do with tennis. We had a huge garden and in 1996, when I was eight years old, my father decided to build a tennis court there. My grandparents told my dad his idea was crazy. It was really crazy.
Photo credit: Marin Cilic Foundation
But my dad had a vision, and he wanted to give me the best shot at success in life. Before I knew it, big trucks started appearing to drop clay. Underneath there was drainage, with sand and other materials. I still remember that it took us almost two hours to completely water the ground during the summer because the water pipe connected to our garden hose was not very big. We often spent more time watering the court than playing!
But I knew I was lucky just to have this land. Nobody in our area knew what it took to be successful in tennis. The few people who played did so for fun. Having the court was an opportunity in itself, as it fueled my love of tennis from the start.
My family’s efforts made me quite responsible when I was playing. I took all my duties very seriously. I was extremely diligent during the practice and followed all the instructions. I showed talent from an early age and trained with a trainer in a nearby town 10 minutes away, but there weren’t many opportunities beyond that for me to grow as a player.
When I was 13, someone wrote an article about my dreams of going to Wimbledon. But with the resources we had – as a family and as a city – it really was an impossible dream. There weren’t many players to train with in Medjugorje apart from my friend Ivan Dodig and his brother Mladen. I had to make the biggest decision of my life when I was 14: stay home with my family and continue my studies or move to Zagreb — the headquarters of the Croatian federation training center — to give myself the best chance of progressing.
I knew it would be very difficult to leave my family, who always meant everything to me. But with their full support, I decided to take the plunge. There have been a few difficult days. Luckily, Zagreb was close enough to my house that I could drive home.
Every six to eight weeks I would jump on the bus at 9 or 10 in the evening and arrive at 6 or 7 in the morning. I sat there thinking about my dream of becoming a professional tennis player. It was pretty unlikely, I have to say, but I did my best.
I had to show up for every practice in Zagreb, and I never missed one. I took the opportunity very seriously and stayed alert, even though it’s not that easy at that age, especially away from home. I have to admit it was tough. No matter how great my Zagreb family was – I lived with my godfather and his wife – it was always a transition to a bigger city away from the family and friends I grew up with. But I believe that part of the strength, extra calm and inner peace I have found comes from my upbringing and the support of my family. I always had faith that God would guide me in the right direction.
I always try to think back to those beginnings, because sometimes we find ourselves looking for more and more. I found myself in situations where I was not having fun on the pitch. When I started playing, it was always for fun. That’s why through the ups and downs as a professional tennis player, I remember to enjoy it.
Photo credit: Marin Cilic Foundation
At some point in your career, you start wondering if you’ll ever win a big title or achieve your goals. But nothing is certain. Do you remember that newspaper article about my goals at Wimbledon? My parents still have it in their house, and it’s a reminder of all the years of hard work it took to get this far. I fulfilled my dream of playing at Wimbledon, I played the final there and at the Australian Open, I won the US Open and I spent most of my life playing at the game that I fell in love with when I was seven years old in my parents’ garden.
It’s amazing that I turned professional in the first place. I have achieved so many dreams that I never thought I could achieve, and I have long pondered how I could help others do the same. At first, I didn’t really know how. I always wanted to give back to the community and I always wanted to do more. But I knew it would be important to do it consistently.
I found the right recipe for this while reading Outliers: The Success Story by Malcolm Gladwell. The book talks about what makes successful people, and Gladwell came to the conclusion that opportunity is what makes successful people successful, and I absolutely agree. If I hadn’t had opportunities – if my parents hadn’t built a tennis court in the garden, if I had never moved to Zagreb or if I hadn’t met one of my coaches at the right time – I probably wouldn’t have succeeded here.
Photo credit: Marin Cilic Foundation
This was the idea behind the launch of the Marin Cilic Foundation in 2016. We do everything in our power to help children in need, whether through scholarships, motivational speeches or providing them with appropriate guidance to steer them in the right direction. There are many young talents around the world who come from developing regions or their families simply cannot support them. In the end, this talent does not have the opportunity to shine. I hope for a world in which all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.
We have two major projects underway at the foundation. One is to build a playground in developing areas to help children who do not have access to play spaces, and the second is to award scholarships to talented young people in the fields of sports, music and STEM. Although I had the chance to live my dream through sports, there are children in many areas who are struggling. Helping them gives me such positive feelings. When I am able to make them happy, I am happy.
I know how those kids feel, because I was there. I remember sitting on that bus when I was coming back from Zagreb wondering if I would ever become a professional tennis player. I had no idea what the future would bring me and if my goals were possible. For all the children who are asking the same questions today, I will do everything I can to help make their dreams come true.
Learn more about the Marin Cilic Foundation
– as told to Andrew Eichenholz