WIMBLEDON, England -- When Kaja Juvan decided to take a break from the tour in April, she didn't know whether she'd be back in a matter of weeks, months or longer.
The 22-year-old had spent the first half of 2023 trying to cling on 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 got to see her play tennis one last time -- at the Billie Jean King Cup play-offs in November, when Slovenia hosted China. Juvan won both her rubbers, against Wang Xinyu and Zheng Qinwen.
"I had a talk with my dad a few 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 qualifying, with her ranking down at No.244 from a high of No.58.
"His biggest worry was that I wouldn't continue playing. So I also wanted to do it for him, at least try to continue. I'd never lost anybody that I loved so much before, so I didn't really know how I was going to feel."
Juvan's decision to play the Billie Jean King Cup meant she wouldn't be eligible for a protected ranking for another six months. So she resumed tour life, with all the points she had to defend at the forefront of her mind, 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 was trying to find the right way to grieve, but there's 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, notably ATP pro Laslo Djere, whose parents had both died of colon cancer, and Jessica Pegula, who penned an essay about her mother's health scare in February this year. By April, Juvan realized she needed to forget about her ranking and step back from the grind.
"I needed 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're so exposed, and I just needed to hide a little bit."
Knowing how much others' stories had helped her inspired Juvan to write a heartfelt post on social media herself -- Pegula was one of those who reached out afterward -- and she's still keen to emphasize that she's willing to talk to any of her peers who have been through the bereavement process.
"You're focused on your sport, but tennis is also a community," she said. "When I see posts on social media where somebody's really honest, I think that's the whole point. Cancer and death are still things it's a bit taboo to talk about in our society. If someone else experiences it, I want them to feel able to step up and come to me and let's have a talk about how much you love that person and how you're trying to make sense of it."
After announcing her break, Juvan then went back to her roots to work out her own answers. Her family had holidayed on the Croatian island of Lošinj every summer for 20 years, and her parents had gone there before Juvan and her brother were born. It was where she first picked up a racquet.
"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 continue."
On Lošinj, Juvan hid from the world and contemplated existential questions.
"You have questions you've never thought about before, a bit 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 work out how I still saw him, and how I could connect with him. In the end, the thing I felt most connected to is that he's actually my DNA. I come from him, and that's how he's always going to 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 pros Camila Osorio, Marina Bassols Ribera and Pedro Cachin. Founded by philanthropist Sergi Ferrer-Salat, its mission is to shape the social awareness as well as high-level athleticism of tennis players.
"We're not just tennis players, we're people who want to be advocates for important subjects about our world," Juvan said. "I feel really at home there."
Juvan's enthusiasm for a project that takes subjects such as climate change and environmental action seriously, and where players volunteer in kitchens to feed homeless people as well as 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, asked what she wanted the world to know about him. "He and my mum did a really good job of showing me the 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 very much like me in a lot of ways.
"I'm at the point where I'm going independent, but I couldn't wish for better parents to show me the life lessons."