When Rad Vukic fled Sarajevo in the early 1990s, escaping the war by blending in with another family catching a SOS plane, tennis was far off his mind. Son Aleksandar ‘Alex’, playing at the Tata Open Maharashtra, says it wasn’t a sport his dad knew much about. But when the family – his mother Lijljna and brother Vladimir had left earlier with other vulnerable women and children – found refuge in Sydney, Vukic Sr took to the game obsessively, and would steer his younger son into a career in the sport.
Australia boasts of several tennis players, children of immigrants who landed on its shores fleeing tough times, in search of a better, safer life. Many of East European and Mediterranean heritage call the country their home, and while Alex stresses the society is very inclusive, he adds that sport plays its role.
“Mostly my brother, six years older, who came to Australia at two-and-a-half years of age, took the first step. It is a multicultural society. But yes, sport did help blend in,” he says. Vukic played tennis and football, and in high school even cricket, volleyball and rugby. “My dad and brother played, and I used to run behind them picking the balls. But I just played many sports and gravitated towards tennis’,” he remembers.
Vukic Sr would miss the rest of his family still in Montenegro, and continue celebrating important holidays with other cousins who similarly reached Sydney and became citizens. “But he was happy with his decision,” Alex says.
While his parents were both computer engineers, his mother would often push him towards academics, while the father, smitten by tennis, turned him in the opposite direction: making him slog on the court. “My brother is a very smart guy. So, he followed that path. I went into tennis.”
Life can be rough for children of immigrants, eager to make the most of what they view as a great escape from troubles left behind. And not just in academics. “Yes, my dad was hard on me in a good way because he wanted me to succeed and that can be tough on the kids. So, there wasn’t much room for socialising. At times, it felt like too much pressure and I was being forced to train hard. But my parents did their best for us, so looking back I’m grateful, though at that point it was emotionally tough,” he recalls.
He would watch his parents and the sheer hustle to pack everything into 24 hours of a day. “They would work so hard during the day. And leave work early because I had to be at the tennis at 4 pm. Then they would log back in at 8-9 pm and work again,” he says.
Alex is surrounded by friends in tennis, all of whom might be born in Australia, but whose parents came from varied nationalities. “But we don’t see it that way. Especially as a child. You get integrated.”
He would later choose to go to college at University of Illinois, playing tennis on a scholarship and standing out on the NCAA circuit. “Unbelievable four years of my life. It was a great environment for my tennis,” says the World No 140, looking to crack the Top 100. He also took on one of the toughest academic programmes, something expected of him by his mother.
Football remained a second love – something his father regularly attended before war broke out. “I’m a big Arsenal fan, fortunately or unfortunately,” Alex jokes, adding his cricket viewing is restricted to the Ashes and when Indians come touring.
He scored his first breakthrough win against Lloyd Harris, seeded 30, at the recent Australian Open. In Pune, he would lose to second seed Italian Lorenzo Musetti 6-7 (3), 6-3, 3-6. But the dream of an immigrant father, nursed in the summer Sydney blaze on tennis courts, lives on.