For Kaja Juvan, community and contemplation help the grieving process

WIMBLEDON, England – When Kaja Juvan decided to take a break from the tour in April, she didn’t know if she would be back in a matter of weeks, months or longer.

The 22-year-old had spent the first half of 2023 trying to cling to the tennis treadmill while also grieving her father, Robert, who died of cancer last December. She had already taken the last few months of 2022 off to spend time with him, and he had even gotten to see her play tennis one last time – at the Billie Jean King Cup playoffs in November when Slovenia hosted China. Juvan won both his rubbers against Wang Xinyu and Zheng Qinwen.

“I had a talk with my dad a couple of weeks before he passed,” Juvan said at Wimbledon after defeating Margarita Betova 6-0, 6-3 to reach the second round. She had been the last player accepted into the qualifier, with her ranking down to No.244 from a peak of No.58.

“His biggest concern was that I wouldn’t continue playing. So I wanted to do it for him too, at least try to continue. I’d never lost someone that I loved so much before, so I didn’t really know how I would feel.”

Juvan’s decision to play the Billie Jean King Cup meant she would not be eligible for a protected placement for another six months. So she resumed tour life, with all the points she had to defend at the fore, and even managed to grab enough wins that she could pretend everything was OK for a while.

But Juvan was, in her words, “completely exhausted” – something she now realizes was a manifestation of grief.

“I tried to find the right way to grieve, but there is no right way to grieve,” she said. “For me, I was so tired all the time. There were so many things I felt were out of my control.”

She found comfort in reading interviews with players who had gone through similar experiences, especially ATP pro Laslo Djere, whose parents had both died of colon cancer, and Jessica Pegula, who wrote an essay about her mother’s health scare in February of this year. In April, Juvan realized she needed to forget her location and step back from the grind.

“I had to take time off just to see how I felt,” she said. “Did I need to take a long break, or just a few weeks? Where am I? Some people need more time, some less. In tennis you are so exposed and I just needed to hide a little.”

Knowing how much others’ stories had helped her inspired Juvan to write a heartfelt post herself on social media – Pegula was one of those who reached out afterwards – and she’s still keen to stress that she is willing to talk to any of his peers who have gone through the grieving process.

“You’re focused on your sport, but tennis is also a community,” she said. “When I see posts on social media where someone is really honest, I think that’s the whole point. Cancer and death are still things that are kind of taboo to talk about in our society. If someone else experiences it, I want have them feel able to Step up and come to me and let’s have a conversation about how much you love that person and how you’re trying to make sense of it.”

After announcing his hiatus, Juvan then went back to his roots to find his own answers. Her family had vacationed on the Croatian island of Veli Lošinj every summer for 20 years, and her parents had gone there before Juvan and her brother were born. It was here that she first picked up a racket.

“I had so many memories of playing tennis with my parents there,” she said. “It’s the place where it all started. I went there to find a way to connect with my dad and to find a reason to keep going.”

On Veli Lošinj, Juvan hid from the world and pondered existential questions.

“You have questions you’ve never thought about before, a little more philosophical,” she said. “Where is he? He was a stomach surgeon and he got stomach cancer. Why? I was never raised in a religious way, so I had to figure out how to still see him and how to connect with him. In the end, what I felt most connected to is that he’s actually my DNA. I come from him, and that’s how he’ll always be with me.”

After two weeks, Juvan was ready to work again. She speaks glowingly of the support she received from the Tennis Empowerment Center in Barcelona, ​​where she started training last year alongside fellow professionals Camila Osorio, Marina Bassols Ribera and Pedro Cachin. Founded by philanthropist Sergi Ferrer-Salat, its mission is to shape tennis players’ social awareness as well as high-level athleticism.

“We’re not just tennis players, we’re people who want to be advocates for important issues about our world,” Juvan said. “I really feel at home there.”

Juvan’s enthusiasm for a project that takes issues such as climate change and environmental efforts seriously, where players volunteer in kitchens to feed the homeless and hone their tennis strokes, is something she also traces back to her father.

“He always tried to help people as much as he could, he was very selfless,” she said, asking what she wanted the world to know about him. “He and my mother did a really good job of showing me good values, how to take care of people.

“I always saw him as such a fighter, such a tough person, so competitive. He loved to read, he loved to learn. He was a lot like me in a lot of ways.

“I’m at the point where I’m becoming independent, but I couldn’t ask for better parents to show me the lessons of life.”

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