They weren’t supposed to be friends. Realistically, they probably should be enemies.
University of Toledo senior tennis players Sven Burus and Aleksandar Elezovic are from the same part of the world but grew up light-years apart.
Burus was born in Croatia, Elezovic was raised in Serbia, and from 1991-95, the current neighboring countries were engaged in the Croatian War of Independence while both were young boys.
Although neither experienced any direct effects from the war, it left an indelible mark on them like the rest of their countrymen.
That’s why in 2008, when Elezovic contacted UT coach Al Wermer about the possibility of transferring to Toledo from Georgia State, Wermer took the unusual step of asking both players if they were comfortable having a teammate from a rival country.
“Sven was already here, so when I was recruiting Alex, I had to ask Sven, ‘Hey, I’m talking to this guy from Serbia. Do you have any problem with that at all?’ “ Wermer said. “He said, ‘No, it’s fine. It comes down more to personality and whether we get along and he can play. It’s not going to be a national thing.’
“Then I asked Alex, ‘Hey, you know we have this Croatian guy on our team. Is that going to be an issue for you? If you were to come here, is that a problem?’ He said the same thing, ‘I know if I get along with the guy, it’ll be fine.’
“And now, these two guys are best buddies.”
Burus and Elezovic have posted a 30-8 record in doubles this season while helping lead the Rockets to a second-place finish in the Mid-American Conference regular-season standings.
“They really have opposite personalities,” Wermer said, “but they’re friends and doubles partners and have become one of the best doubles teams in the Midwest.”
Leap of faith
A year after the conclusion of overt hostilities between the two countries, Burus and his sister, Marija, moved back to Croatia to live with their grandparents and begin their schooling.
“My dad wanted us to get a fair education at home,” Burus said. “Being a stranger in a different country, there’s some discrimination and stuff. It’s a little bit different in Europe than I would say here in the U.S., because the U.S. is such a big melting pot of different ethnicities.”
In high school, Burus was ranked among the top-15 junior tennis players in Croatia and decided that he wanted to continue to play the sport in college in the United States.
“It’s kind of random,” Burus said. “I was sending e-mails to schools all over the place, and one of them was to Toledo. I saw [pictures of] the school and the campus, and it looked pretty nice.”
Burus and Wermer began conversing through e-mails and over the phone, and they soon developed a connection.
“Sven basically dropped out of the sky,” Wermer said. “He e-mailed me, and we went from there.”
“Looking back it was kind of weird,” Burus concurred. “Coach probably felt something, I don’t know, but I sent him a video from one of my games. He was really interested, and a big factor for me was the tennis program at Toledo and how much coach is dedicated to it.”
After also perusing a school brochure to learn more about UT, Burus signed a national letter of intent to play for the Rockets — without even visiting the campus or meeting with Wermer in person.
It was a huge leap of faith.
“Yeah, it was, and on coach’s part too,” Burus said. “He didn’t know for sure with whom he was dealing with or anything. [But] it worked out really well, and I’m very happy I chose Toledo.”
Originally from Ljubljana, Slovenia, Elezovic grew up in Belgrade, Serbia, and began playing tennis at the age of 9.
“My goal was to be a professional tennis player,” Elezovic said. “At one point I was ranked number one [in his age group] in Serbia, but when I got older, I didn’t succeed in becoming a pro so I decided to go to college.”
“I wasn’t really paying much attention to my studies while I was in high school, because I was so focused on tennis,” Elezovic said. “But when I got to Georgia State, I became interested again in school, and I realized the field I wanted to go into was engineering.”
There was one problem, however.
Georgia State did not have an engineering school, so Elezovic set out to find another university that had a solid tennis program, offered his intended major of construction engineering, and was located in a medium-to-large city.
UT proved to be the perfect match, and after Wermer confirmed that there would be no issues with Elezovic and Burus being teammates, Elezovic joined the Rockets for the spring season in 2009 after sitting out the fall campaign due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Elezovic made an immediate impact at Toledo, winning all seven of his matches in MAC singles action. He finished the season by winning eight straight matches and was named to the MAC all-tournament team.
Yet even through that success, Elezovic was experiencing nagging uneasiness around his new teammates, especially Burus.
When Elezovic was introduced to the team in the fall of 2008, he was ready to accept and be accepted by his new teammates, especially somebody that he wasn’t supposed to get along with.
Burus too was ready to embrace the new guy on the team, but there was an unmistakable awkwardness in that first meeting.
“You could feel a little tension,” Burus said. “Just a little bit. Nothing really special. But it was there.”
Elezovic noticed it also, and it seemed to linger throughout the year.
“We exchanged a few Facebook messages before I came,” Elezovic said. “But once I showed up, I felt like he wasn’t as open to me as I was open to him. There was distance there, and I figured it was because of our different nationalities.”
The pair didn’t interact much, and when they did, the Serbo-Croatian War was never broached.
“We kind of avoided that topic at first, because nothing good can come from it,” Burus said. “Of course I’ll have my side of the story, and he’ll have his.”
The turning point in their relationship came in the spring of 2010, when Burus’ doubles partner and Elezovic’s doubles partner were both kicked off the team within a three-week span of time.
Wermer paired the two together, forcing them to interact and develop a connection.
“We started communicating more and spending more time together,” Elezovic said. “We also started speaking [in their native languages] on the court, and our opponents couldn’t understand because we weren’t speaking English.
“That helped us a lot. We both also started playing better in doubles as we played together longer.”
“I grew up in a family that taught me to love my country, love my people, but also not to hate others,” Elezovic said. “They also taught me there are good and bad people in every country, so you can’t just generalize the whole population of one country.”
Now, the pair are even comfortable talking about the conflict.
“We came to the conclusion after talking a few times about it that it was just a few idiots at that time who were leading the countries,” Burus said. “Like always in wars, it’s not the regular people. The people that are in charge are the ones at fault. We both agreed on that.”
Because the Croatian War of Independence took place exclusively on Croatian soil, Elezovic never heard one bullet fired nor saw any bombs explode.
And because Burus wasn’t living in Croatia at the time, he too didn’t experience the war first-hand.
Both admit that probably has a lot to do with the reason why they were able to develop a close friendship.
“Since I grew up in Switzerland during the war, I don’t want to say I’m a little bit different than other people from Croatia, but I don’t have that [deep-rooted hatred] in me,” Burus said. “I don’t generalize. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you’re a good guy, a good person, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the person.”
Burus and Elezovic’s open-mindedness and forward thinking has served as an inspiration to their coach, their teammates, and each other.
“Everything has worked out great,” Burus said. “We’re double partners, very close friends, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. You have to stop looking in the past and start looking forward.”
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6084.