By Romi Cvitkovic
January 26, 2013 — After winning both the Girls’ singles and doubles Australian Open titles this past week in Melbourne, it’s evident that 15-year-old Croat Ana Konjuh is a WTA star in the making. But what makes her wins all the more remarkable are her unusual circumstances at home.
Konjuh grew up in a tight-knit family in the coastal city of Dubrovnik, and as the second youngest of four girls, didn’t jump into tennis until her older sister Andrea first start competing.
At this time last year, Ana was ranked 860th in the world in juniors, and after a particularly successful fall and winter campaign, she has climbed all the way to No. 3 — turning heads from fans, media and past Slam champions like Goran Ivanisevic.
The young star won seven of the thirteen junior tournaments she entered last year, and also dabbled in some senior ITF events.
But her wins didn’t come easy on a personal level as she was dealt a severe blow at home. Last Fall, her sister Antonia, who is one year older and whom she is very close to, was diagnosed with an extremely rare illness.
Ana’s father Mario recounted to Dubrovnik Net the details of their miserable and uncertain forty-plus days as a family when Antonia became suddenly ill: “Our world collapsed when the doctors told us it would be easier if she was suffering from a tumor,” so severe was the extent of the initial unknown nature of her illness.
On a normal day last October, Antonia simply collapsed to the floor and froze. She was rushed to the hospital and doctors first believed that it was epilepsy. But within a few days her health had worsened. She lost her ability to speak and couldn’t recognize anyone, then fell into a coma for forty days, ensuring she would spend her sixteenth birthday in the hospital. She quickly lost 30 lbs and was merely a shadow of her former healthy self, with only “her heart and lung functioning” according to her father.
Weeks later, the diagnosis finally came: it was a very rare disease, a type of inflammation of the brain from which only 50 people in the world suffer, and all among the elderly. It was first discovered in the US about five years ago.
“We were told that the disease is very severe,” commented Mario. “Incurable. Our world came crumbling down … Her brain stopped functioning, she made completely inarticulate sounds, her face was a blur … It’s very scary for parents.”
Mario further stated that he and his wife Iris did not leave their daughter’s bedside but at the same time “felt infinitely helpless” as any parent would with a suffering child.
“You can have everything in the world, but you can’t help her in any way,” said Mario. “That state of helplessness while watching the life leaving from your daughter is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Nights and nights were spent on the internet, looking for some clue that would offer a lifeline.”
Finally, a “lifeline” came in the form of two London-based doctor who specialized in autoimmune diseases. They, along with Antonia’s Croatian physicians, were doing everything they could to help their daughter. Prayers from family, friends and strangers were given to the ailing girl, and after a while a miracle occurred.
“After thirty-something days, Antonia awakened out of her coma,” recalled Mario. “On the second day, she uttered an entire word. Ten days later, she began to eat with a spoon. The twelfth, she stood up and walked again. It was a medical miracle … Antonia ‘returned from the dead.’ The same way the disease fell upon her, it left her just as quickly.”
During this trying time, Ana’s training took a back seat as the family put all their efforts into Antonia’s well-being. But Ana continued competing a few weeks after her sister fell into a coma and her results, of course, suffered.
But as is the way of the world, Antonia’s emergence from her coma paralleled Ana’s resurgence up the junior ranks. At the same time Antonia’s health began to improve last November, so too Ana began winning tournaments.
“When you draw a line today and follow the situation with Antonia and the sporting success of Ana, we find similarities in their ups and downs,” said Mario. “Life must go on regardless of how one feels. At that time in our lives, Antonia was our priority.”
Mario continues, referencing the difficulties Ana faced in competing while her sister was in the hospital: “Ana did continue to train, but it was more torture than pleasure. We had planned for her to start playing her (first senior ITF tournaments) in Dubrovnik, which she did, but without any big results. She was under stress.”
Ana then played another senior ITF tournament during which she suffered an injury, but it didn’t stop her from convincing her father and team that she should travel to the US to compete in the Eddie Herr and the Orange Bowl tournaments. His only advice to his young daughter? “Listen to your inner voice.” Needless to say, Ana went on to win both events.
She continued that run, dedicating each win to her sister, including both Junior Australian Open titles. Ana and Antonia are sisters already but their lives became even more interwoven as they shared in their joys together.
It’s not hard to see their strong family dynamic as Ana faced a warm reception by both family and spectators at the Zagreb airport the other day. It takes a very strong 15-year-old girl to face challenges like this and come out the victor.
Hell of an accomplishment these last few months have been, Ana. You certainly have a new fan in me.
Video of her arrival at the Zagreb airport, in Croatian, where Goran Ivanisevic also awaited her, at bottom.