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Serbian tennis ace giving it his best shot

by Everett Kennedy Brown

It was gunfire that Nikola Stula thought he heard the first night he arrived in Gifu.

It was a sound he knew well. His memories were still fresh of the three-month war in 1998, when every evening the blast of the air-raid sirens was followed by gunfire that rattled the windows in his parents’ home in Belgrade.

Looking out at the night sky that first evening in Gifu, Stula realized there were no gunshots, only the illumination of fireworks above the Nagara River that flowed down from the mountains. He returned to his futon secure in the knowledge that he was beginning a new life in a new land.

Before arriving in Japan, Stula had known a life of uncertainty. The war in the former Yugoslavia had devastated the region’s economy. For Stula, war had become a fact of life. But he didn’t let it interfere with his tennis training. Even as bombs fell on the neighboring hills, he and his college friends continued their daily tennis games.

There was little work for young people, even for those like Stula who graduated from one of the country’s top universities. One of his professors at the University of Belgrade had even found work in the black market in order to make ends meet. For many talented young people, especially tennis players like Stula, a promising future seemed remote.

Stula was lucky, however. His tennis coach at university, Dejan Simic, was influential in the tennis world. He was an official of the International Tennis Federation who had written books on tennis training and had his own weekly tennis program on television in Yugoslavia. It was Simic who recognized both Stula’s coaching talents and his command of English. He arranged for Stula to play a doubles match with Japanese Foreign Ministry officials stationed in Belgrade.

Later, Stula was invited to a party at the Japanese Embassy. There, he learned about the Japan Education and Teaching program, and his coach encouraged him to apply. He was also introduced to a former Yugoslav ambassador who told him stories about life in Japan and in Gifu City, in particular. Six months later, in August last year, Stula arrived in Gifu as a sports education adviser assigned to the Prefectural Sports Science Training Center.

More than a year has passed since Stula’s first night in Gifu. In that time, he has developed a good command of the Japanese language and devotes his energies to training local tennis players in afterschool sports programs. An average day for Stula involves working at the training center from late morning until early afternoon and then coaching at a number of high schools and one women’s college until early evening.

Stula graduated from a special coaches training program at the University of Belgrade, where he studied physical training and sports psychology with some of Europe’s top trainers. He learned that the qualities of a top athlete are self-reliance, strong image-training skills and physical conditioning. Things that are all too often not found in Japanese sports education.

“What strikes me about many of my Japanese students is that they lack self-confidence,” says Stula. “I often hear them using words like dame and shippai [I messed up] and blaming themselves for minor mistakes. I try to get them to understand that if they make a mistake on the court, it’s good to visualize the situation again, but getting everything right. This way, the next time, they are more likely to perform on the mark.

“It takes the right mental attitude to win.”

Though Stula enjoys a good relationship with the Japanese tennis coaches and students, he finds it discouraging that few of them are willing to put his suggestions into practice.

“Sometimes it feels like they don’t respect me,” Stula confides. “At times like this I can begin to lose confidence in myself as a coach and ask why I am doing this job.”

During such emotional troughs, he gets on his mountain bike and cycles to the top of a mountain. Experience has taught him that physically challenging himself is the best way to regain a healthy sense of confidence.

“As a coach, my job is to help the students improve their performance,” Stula says. “If they improve, then I feel good that I have done my job well. I am constantly looking for ways to make this happen.”

One of Stula’s dreams is to take a group of his Japanese students to a tennis camp in upstate New York. If they can train in a world-class tennis environment, Stula believes, some of his players may be able to raise their skills to a more international level.

When asked about his plans for the future, Stula comments: “Yugoslavia has a fine tennis tradition that has produced such players as the legendary Slovodan Zivoinovic and top-ranked Jelena Dokic. It’s a country where you find children playing tennis everywhere on the streets. But the war has taken a promising future away from many young players . . . I want to create a bridge of opportunity, so that these talented young players can fulfill their talents and dreams.”