DePaul tennis star talks game, culture and candy
When Marino Jakic moved to the United States, he had two goals: play great tennis for DePaul and try all of the candies the country has to offer.
Jakic is a sophomore at DePaul majoring in sports communications – for now – and a star on DePaul’s tennis team. Originally from Croatia, which is almost 5,000 miles from Chicago, Jakic moved here to go to DePaul on September 3, 2021.
Jakic was recruited by DePaul tennis during his final year of high school, and signed with the team in March 2021. However, he’s not the only international student on the team. Most of the players are from Europe, but some are from Canada or the Middle East.
Jakic said that DePaul doesn’t necessarily go looking for international students, but that’s usually where they draw the most interest from. “I would just say that I feel like the best American tennis players go to bigger schools,” Jakic said. “And tennis is, I would say, bigger in Europe, so there’s more players in Europe just to recruit.”
His tennis journey began long before he came to Chicago. At just six years old, Jakic was playing tennis in Croatia’s second largest city and his hometown, Split.
“Actually, it was because I won one tournament that really meant a lot to me when I was a kid. So I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I will just stay with tennis,’” Jakic said.
When Jakic started to get serious about tennis, he transferred to a private, remote high school outside of Split called Birotehnika-Dopisna Škola Zagreb.
Because there is no organized high school tennis in Croatia, Jakic played on his own, affiliated with a club. Because the team setup is different from the U.S., Jakic had his own coaches, signed up for tournaments on his own and really just used the club’s courts to practice.
While playing in tournaments across Europe as a teenager, Jakic met one of his future DePaul teammates, best friend and roommate, Matteo Iaquinto of Palermo, Italy.
“I met him the first time when we were approximately 15, 16 years old in a tournament in Germany,” Iaquinto said. “He has a vibrant energy and he is a very nice kid.”
Along with Jakic and Iaquinto, in a typical freshman dorm on the second floor of Ozanam Hall were Jona Gitschel of Hilden, Germany, and Sven Moser of Bern, Switzerland.
Jakic in particular had an astounding freshman season. “For the whole season, I was playing basically number two. I got ranked also in singles, so that helped me with my accomplishments,” he said. “I had some really nice wins.”
Aside from taking home the Big East Championship trophy alongside his teammates, Jakic won individual awards. These included Big East Freshman of the Year, Big East Championship Most Outstanding Player and DePaul’s own Billy Award, Newcomer of the Year.
“I was honestly most surprised to get the newcomer of the year at DePaul because I knew there was so much great athletes, especially freshmen.”
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Though tennis seems to be an individual sport from the outside, Jakic was insistent that he could not have accomplished as much as he did last year without the support and resilience of his team.
“We were helping each other, we were bouncing off each other on practices, we were helping each other improve in so many ways on the court, off the court, it was just teamwork.”
Jakic especially credits his now-graduated former teammate, Vito Tonejc. Tonejc graduated from DePaul last year and now plays tennis professionally. He and Jakic were ranked as doubles partners, but most importantly, Tonejc was a fellow Croatian and part of the reason Jakic ended up at DePaul in the first place.
“He was really helpful. I practiced with him a lot. Whenever I needed something, he would tell me what I needed to do,” Jakic said.
Iaquinto was also a huge supporter of Jakic, especially when Jakic won the match point of the Big East Championship. Jakic thinks fondly of the match point of the Big East and the relief he felt.
“I felt tension a little bit, but I was actually pretty confident. And then when I won the point I felt relief, honestly. I felt really happy, I dropped to my knees,” he said. “Then I stand up and I see Matteo and I was like, ‘Yo, this is fast,’ and I see the video after and he jumped like, I don’t know, five-foot fence, he just jumped it and came.”
The video appears on the Big East’s Instagram story, solidifying Jakic and Iaquinto’s friendship as truly iconic.
“He is a very talented player,” Iaquinto said. “He always brings a lot of energy to our practices.”
Outside of playing tennis, Jackic spent a lot of time immersing himself in American culture and adjusting to the new country he now calls home.
“I had never been to the [United] States before,” Jakic said. “It was a culture shock, honestly, when I came.” Jakic landed in Chicago just a few days before the start of classes in Fall Quarter of 2021.
He moved in with Iaquinto and collectively, they spoke four different languages and understood others. “I speak English, Croatian, a little bit of Italian – I can understand it – I can understand German a little bit.”
Despite all of the different languages spoken by the tennis team, the players have a rule: they only speak English at practice, during matches and when traveling. “It’s our rule to make everybody feel included,” Jakic said. It prevents cliques from forming within the team due to the languages spoken by each player.
Jakic says his English has improved since he arrived over a year ago, but his Croatian accent remains. “I feel like I’ve expanded my vocabulary, that’s for sure,” he said.
The amount of languages he encountered was not his only cultural shock. In a more American-centric sense, Jakic was surprised by two things in particular: the food and the guns.
After trying the wide variety of candy in the United States, Jakic formed some opinions. “My favorite? I do like Swedish Fish,” Jakic said. He also has taken a liking to Takis, saying that nothing even remotely similar exists in much of Europe, including Croatia.
On his first night, he was also taken to DogHaus by Tonejc and some other, older teammates. Still jet lagged, he was shocked by DogHaus – as well as just the look of Chicago. “[The] city is not like [the] city in Split,” Jakic said. According to Jakic, Split is more ancient and there are no skyscrapers or many single-family homes.
The political and cultural scene in the United States is also different from what Jakic is used to. The economy is bigger and more important in the U.S., the LGBTQ+ community is more widely accepted and the humor is different here.
However, the most astounding difference for Jakic was the amount of guns in the United States, as well as how casual it is.
The one part of his life that hasn’t changed much, however, is tennis, which has always been a constant for Jakic. He still has a stronger backhand, and is known for his comeback and taking “unusual” shots that end up winning him points.
“It’s high risk, high reward, I would say. It comes with the extra motivation,” Jakic said. He feels his mental toughness is the only reason he pulls off so many wins. No matter how far behind or ahead he is, he plays with a desire to win.
Now, Jakic is facing one of the hardest roadblocks of his career. After his appendix burst a few weeks ago, he had to be hospitalized. After trying to continue to play, he realized he would need surgery, a devastating loss to him and his teammates.
“We will definitely miss him,” Iaquinto said. “We already miss him a lot right now, and hopefully he can come back soon with us.”
Before his appendix burst, Jakic was playing better than he ever, leading DePaul to a win over Princeton. He was ranked in both singles and doubles play and was ready for the regular, spring tennis. Now, he’s sidelined for the remainder of it.
“It’s really hard,” Jakic said. “I’ve been to a few matches and it’s been really hard especially when I see someone losing or when I see the team not doing good, I feel guilty for not being out there on the court.”
Even though he cannot play, he plans to support his team as much as possible. “I do the most that I can. I cheer them on and if they need help at all on the court with tactics or whatever, I do the most that I can,” Jakic said.
Jakic had the surgery to get his appendix removed on March 9, and the procedure went better than expected. He plans to begin practicing slowly and is confident he will be able to get back to the level of play he was at. Until then, Jakic will do his best to support his teammates and friends.
Header Illustration by Madeline Smith