culture.logo.new.2016

E-mail
Print
Increase Text Size Text Reset Decrease Text Size

Tennis Player-Turned-Ambassador and Wife Come to U.S. from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Diplomacy is often seen as a sport. In fact, if you had to pick one sport, tennis might be an apt comparison, given that players have to deftly maneuver around their opponent, anticipating their next move and outfoxing them.

Bosnia and Herzegovina apparently took this analogy to heart by appointing a famous professional tennis player and coach as its ambassador to the U.S. But, given his connections, it may have been a shrewd move on the part of this picturesque but politically scarred Balkan nation.

b2.spouses.bosnia.herzegovina.family.storyBojan Vujic has been a professional tennis player for most of his adult life, participating in the Davis Cup as both a player and coach and winning various championships for Bosnia and Herzegovina and, before that, Yugoslavia. He also coached in Florida at the Mar-a-Lago Club, which just happens to be owned by President Trump. There, Vujic was the sparring partner of retired U.S. tennis player Monique Viele.

“At his credentialing ceremony, my husband said, ‘It’s nice to see you again Mr. President’ and President Trump said back, ‘It’s nice to see you again,’ but that’s all. We weren’t sure he remembered my husband or not,” said Vujic’s wife Tatjana, a senior pharmacist in her previous life.

“It is not only our first time being top diplomats, but diplomats at all. Everything is new to us,” Tatjana told us when we met at the couple’s modern apartment building in Arlington, Va., where they have a two-bedroom apartment.

Diplomacy may be new to them, but the United States isn’t.

Vujic coached at tennis academies helmed by acclaimed U.S. players Chris Evert and Rick Macci, both also in Palm Beach, Fla. His clients included International Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Capriati, considered one of the greatest players of all time, and Maria Sharapova, an Olympic silver medalist who is one of only 10 women to hold the career Grand Slam.

Vujic told us that while his diplomatic credentials may be unconventional, there are many skills he’s learned as a tennis champion that he can apply here in Washington, D.C.

“Throughout my tennis career, I met a lot of people all over the world: sports people, political people, business people through my tennis. I have pretty much of a good feeling about people and how I should talk to them. That’s why for me, it’s not difficult to meet all kinds of people as I need to do as an ambassador for my country,” he said.

When asked if his appointment was related to his work at Trump’s resort, he firmly told us no.

“I was an ambassador through tennis, even though it was through sport and not diplomacy,” he said.

Still, having a famous tennis champion-turned-ambassador will be quite a novelty among the city’s diplomatic corps.

But for the U.S., such so-called political appointees (who don’t come from the career foreign service) are nothing new. U.S. presidents often give ambassadorial postings to donors or political operatives. Roughly 30 percent of U.S. diplomatic postings abroad go to political appointees over career Foreign Service Officers.

Supporters of the practice say political appointees can be more effective than career officers if they enjoy direct, personal ties to the president. And appointees with strong backgrounds in other fields such as business can inject fresh vision and creativity into an embassy.

But by the same token, the practice has been criticized for dispatching people who have little diplomatic knowledge abroad. Indeed, this has backfired on occasion. Cynthia Stroum, President Obama’s ambassador to Luxembourg, was fired because of alleged bullying of her staff.

Meanwhile, President Trump has also come under fire for appointing wealthy campaign contributors to key postings. Most recently, his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, a hotel executive, became embroiled in the Ukraine whistleblower scandal and was even considered a national security risk because of his lack of experience, according an Oct. 16 report in The New York Times.

b2.spouses.bosnia.herzegovina.quote.storyUnlike the U.S., foreign countries tend to appoint career professionals to Washington, D.C., considered one of the most important postings in the world. But the practice is not unheard of among foreign governments either. For example, Canada, like may other nations, typically appoints ambassadors from the ruling political party. Foreign ambassadors also come from all walks of life. Former Gambian Ambassador Sheikh Omar Faye (profiled in our March 2017 issue) was for years his nation’s fastest sprinter, competing in the Commonwealth Games and the Summer Olympics.

Vujic told us he’s more than ready for his new job given his own sports background.

“I have already been an ambassador for my country as the number-one tennis player for Yugoslavia and I felt … I was presenting my country diplomatically. There is nothing new, nothing different,” he said.

In addition, he’s very familiar with the U.S., having played in tournaments such as the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C., and coached here for many years.

“I am used to life in America. I love America. I love the people who live here. I feel comfortable living here. This is the best country for me to live in today unless I am at home,” he said.

Likewise, his wife also knows the country well. Tatjana came to the United States in 2003 to attend a month-long pharmaceutical manufacturing course in Minneapolis. She stayed with her best friend and Bojan’s cousin Natasha, who had made her home in the Midwestern city after spending her senior year abroad in an American high school there.

Since they were 16, Tatjana and Natasha have been best friends. In fact, it was Natasha who introduced Tatjana to her husband. “I was too shy for a blind date. So Natasha and I went out to a coffee bar. I was 19, in my second year at university. I think he liked me because I was shy and not so impressed” that he was a famous tennis champion, Tatjana recalled.

Appointing someone who is so different than the typical Washington diplomat — and who is accustomed to being in the limelight and interacting with the public — may indeed be a smart move on the part of the government to pique American interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which many Americans still only associate with the horrific Balkan wars of the 1990s.

After the death of Croatian dictator Josip Broz Tito in 1980, centuries-old tensions among the six Yugoslav republics escalated, leading to Yugoslavia’s disintegration in 1991 when Croatia and Serbia declared their independence. Serb President Slobodan Milošević unleashed his army to stamp out the uprising, but the spark had already been lit.

b2.spouses.bosnia.herzegovina.vujic.storyBosnia was the next to try for independence. It quickly became engulfed in bloodshed in 1992 as Slavic Bosniaks (sometimes referred to as Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats fought for territory.

The war ended with the signing of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords in 1995 and the formation of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska as an entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Since then, Bosnia and Herzegovina, sometimes abbreviated as B-H, has maintained a fragile peace through a triumvirate presidency that divides power among a Bosniak, Croat and Serb.

The delicate, awkward arrangement, which often leads to political deadlock, has made it difficult to address the country’s deep-rooted problems, including unemployment, corruption and a massive youth brain drain.

Ethnic tensions have also endured long after the war, which killed some 100,000 people.

It’s little wonder then that Tatjana prefers not to dwell on those dark times.

“I was 14 when the war started. It was so close. We couldn’t travel. We had only each other,” she recalled. “It was very scary, but I was lucky. All my family survived, but all of us, everyone in country, was touched by this war.”

When Yugoslavia was one entity, Tatjana pointed out that, “It was a big country with big influence. Everyone knew Yugoslavia. Now we are small country but everyone knows each other. We really speak the same language whether it is called Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian. There are maybe 10 words that are different. B-H may be a very complicated country, but we have our own government, we are in charge of ourselves.

“I don’t want to talk about war,” she added solemnly. “The war is behind us and we have started with a new economic development. The good thing is that we have less discrimination now than we had before the war…. We don’t want to be known only for war.”

Instead, Tatjana and her husband want to teach Americans about all of the progress her Balkan nation has made. In fact, Bosnia and Herzegovina is now classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank and has been working toward membership in the European Union.

It’s also made a name for itself as a tourist destination thanks to its varied landscape and scenic, medieval cities and villages.

“The Bosnian region in the north is mountains and covered with thick forests,” Tatjana said. “The Herzegovina region in the south is largely rugged, flat farmland. My country has a straight and narrow coast along the Adriatic but we don’t have any harbors. We have large national parks and nature reserves. Because we have so many mountains and open spaces, there are wonderful places to hike, ski and hunt.

“These days, hunting of deer, wild pigs and wolves is not as popular as fly-fishing,” she added. “We have lots of beautiful rivers suitable for kayaking, rafting and sport fishing. Skiing in our mountains is still very popular. It is my favorite sport.”

The 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, and today, Bosnians are proud that many sporting events continue to be held in their country, such as the European Rafting Championship, which took place this summer in Banja Luka.

Sports is an integral part not only of Tatjana and her husband’s lives, but of their country’s identity as well — and an important export. NBA players in the U.S. from Bosnia include Mirza Teletović, Dzanan Musa and Jusuf Nurkic. Meanwhile, Damir Dzumhur and Ivan Dodig are top international tennis players. Professional soccer players include Edin Džeko and Miralem Pjanić.

Tatjana is also proud of how many Bosnians have won international acclaim in other fields. Author Ivo Andrić received the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature for his book on the history of Bosnia, while Vladimir Prelog received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975. “We have so many famous artists but the best known are Braco Dimitrijević, Safet Zec, Radenko Milak and Mladen Miljanović,” she told us.

b2.spouses.bosnia.herzegovina.ski.storyFamous filmmakers include Emir Kusturica and Danis Tanović. In fact, the Sarajevo Film Festival, held every August, is becoming a major international attraction. Meanwhile, two Bosnian cities, Banja Luka and Mostar, are in the final competition to be dubbed the European Capital of Culture for 2024.

“I would like everyone to know and talk about our great music, art, sports, countryside, tourism, mountains, rivers, skiing, food and famous brandy,” Tatjana said. “My country is just waiting to be discovered.”

That will partly be her job now — to help her husband spread the word about Bosnia and Herzegovina in the United States.

Tatjana said that while she wasn’t sure what life as an ambassador’s spouse would look like, she was surprised by how simple and easygoing it’s been so far.

“You are more relaxed in the U.S. In our country, everyone is very dressed up all the time, more concerned about having perfect hair all the time. You see it in Italy, Croatia and Serbia. Probably we do it because Croatia, Serbia and Italy do it. In the U.S., people dress sportier, more casually,” she said.

“Washington is so nice. There are lots of surprises here. So many trees, parks … and this city is very clean. If you go around another corner, you are surprised how much more there is to see,” she said. “You have so many great museums. I went one day to the National Gallery and saw only one part. I can’t wait to go back.

“We arrived on Aug. 24. It was so hot, with high humidity. We very, very seldom have that kind of humidity at home, but I was in Dubai once at the end of September and it was 90% humidity. Washington is not that bad,” she said.

“The first two weeks we stayed at the Melrose [Hotel], almost in Georgetown. We looked for furniture and schools for the girls. We chose Arlington for the schools. Lana, our 6-year-old, is in kindergarten at Arlington Science Focus Elementary School. She is not shy, a good student who knows what she wants. My husband is already teaching her how to play tennis. Nastja, who will be 11 this month, is at Dorothy Hamm Middle School. She is already playing tennis but my husband doesn’t want her to be a professional. You travel all the time, it’s hard to have a family and it’s a very tough, expensive lifestyle,” Tatjana said.

“Lana is more like her father, open and full of self-confidence; Nastja is more like me, shy…. I learned English in school but was too shy to talk with people. I was a perfectionist so I didn’t want to make mistakes. So, since I didn’t try to speak English, I didn’t learn. Every day now I go to the Arlington County Public School program REEP [adult English classes] to learn English,” said Tatjana, who after less than than two months in Washington, conducted our entire interview in English.

“I want our daughters to see what they can’t see in our country,” she continued. “For example, here soccer and basketball are not for men only. In America, women and girls play all sorts of sports. Here, people learn to have an open mind about all the different kinds of people and traditions. It’s normal here to meet African Americans, Indians, Native Americans, Hispanics and people from all over the world. This country is open to everybody.”

That type of tolerance and diversity is something she hopes her still ethnically divided homeland will continue to embrace. In fact, her best friend from high school, Natasha, is married to an Iranian man.

“Of course, I would welcome a mixed marriage for either of our daughters,” Tatjana reflected. “The only important thing is that they are happy.”


About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Follow The Diplomat: icon-facebook icon-twitter icon-linkedin icon-rss instagram