Friday, September 30, 2022

Ole Miss Tennis Imports Big Talent from Croatia to USA

Tennis brought Zvonimir Babic (L) and Filip Kraljevic (R) together, first in Croatia and now at Ole Miss.  Photo by Joe Rogers.
Tennis brought Zvonimir Babic (L) and Filip Kraljevic (R) together, first in Croatia and now at Ole Miss. Photo by Joe Rogers.

The men’s tennis team at The University of Mississippi has a long tradition of recruiting players from all over the globe. Countries such as Sweden, Germany and South Africa have all provided talented players. The tennis program prides itself on recruiting and then shaping the lives of young foreign athletes. This year sees two young players from Croatia reconnect in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi. Their journeys have been different, but their friendship has been a constant in their tennis development.

Zvonimir Babic pours himself a Coca-Cola and takes a seat on the sofa of his apartment on the Oxford Square. The sophomore native of Zagreb, Croatia is taking a study break from his evening routine of studying for accounting classes. Meanwhile, freshman Filip Kraljevic sits opposite of Babic, enjoying a chance to get away from his usual dorm room surroundings. The pair start beaming as the conversation turns to their home country. “Zagreb is a very interesting and prosperous city. It is very crowded and in that sense very different to Oxford and also Filip’s hometown,” explains Babic. Kraljevic grew up away from the capital in the coastal city of Rijeka.

“It’s located on the sea so it’s popular with tourists. We get a lot of people from around the world each year,” says Kraljevic. But it wasn’t tourists or beach vacations that led Babic and Kraljevic to each other. It was tennis.

Focus on tennis starts early

Unlike in America, high school students in Croatia don’t have the option of playing sports competitively. It is only through private sports clubs that youngsters can become actively involved in athletics. Babic and Kraljevic both found tennis and enjoyed it so much that other sports simply didn’t get a look.

“Tennis was always my first and only option,” Babic says proudly. “I won my first tournaments at the age of 8 and realized I could compete with any other player in the region.”

Kraljevic cuts in and cites an almost identical history. “I loved it from the moment I started playing at 6 years old. It honestly didn’t cross my mind to try other sports, as I knew I had already found my perfect match.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 9.21.59 PM
Courtesy: Google Maps

The pair first met at a tournament in Umag, Croatia when they were 10 years old, but it wasn’t until two years later that their competitive relationship first ignited.

“We played each other first when we were 12 years old. It wasn’t my best match,” jokes Kraljevic.

The two continued to compete against each other through the age groups, but it was on the same side of the net that their personal and professional relationship prospered. “It was the doubles career for us both that changed our tennis path and led us to Ole Miss,” says Babic.

The pair prospered in International Federation Tournaments in the 18 and under age group, which naturally attracted attention from some of the top colleges in the US. It was Ole Miss, however, that Babic fell in love with during his visit in the spring of 2014.

Moving to Ole Miss

“I spoke to my friend Dino Marcan, a Croatian tennis player who came to Ole Miss,” says Babic. “He was very complimentary of the campus and the town, and also spoke highly of (Head Coach) Toby Hansson. I watched the tennis team play against Texas A&M while I was visiting, and I couldn’t believe how passionate everyone was. It was really incredible and my mind was made up straight away. I wanted to be a Rebel.”

As Babic moved through his freshman year, he was in constant contact with Kraljevic back home in Croatia. “Zvonimir was always one of my best friends and we talked about Ole Miss all the time. When I decided to come to college, Ole Miss wasn’t a hard decision because I knew how much easier it would be to adjust with him here. Knowing he could move out to Mississippi made me realize that I could do it too,” Kraljevic says with a smile.

That doesn’t mean its been a completely smooth transition for the pair, however. With a new country comes a new culture and studying in a new language for the first time. They both agree that the latter has been a tough adjustment.

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re here to get a degree,” adds Babic. “The tennis is fantastic but also takes up so much of our time, so combining it with our studies, especially in another language, is difficult.”

Kraljevic, approaching the end of his first semester, echoes what his good friend says. “The schoolwork being in another language has been challenging. And while I’ve liked living in Oxford, my biggest adjustment has been being so far away from home for such a long period of time.”

As most students can vouch for, there is sometimes nothing better than a weekend back at home. For these two Croatians, however, it just isn’t an option.

Career plans

College tennis has become increasingly attractive to those seeking a way into the professional ranks. Four years of competing is invaluable and sets players up for the arduous life of a professional trying to break through to the top. Both Babic and Kraljevic are aware of how much there is to gain from their time at Ole Miss as they look forward to the prospect of professional tennis careers.

“After college my goal is to play professionally and be in the top 100 in the world. It’s not an easy task, but I believe in myself,” says Kraljevic.

“I would love it if we could play doubles together on the professional circuit after Ole Miss,” Babic adds.

So what are the goals for Babic and Kraljevic during their time at Ole Miss? A first national title for the Rebels? “Definitely. A national title is what we dream about,” says Babic. “We have a young team but one full of potential and a fantastic team spirit.”

And if the team spirit is as solid as the relationship shared by Babic and Kraljevic, then good times await the Ole Miss tennis team.

Men’s Tennis kicks off its season at home vs. Troy on January 16.

This story was contributed by Joe Rogers, history major and journalism minor,





//The following lines allow infolinks to place their ads - Inserted 6/17/2022 // End infolinks tracing pixel