For Delic, success hasn't come easy

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Amer Delic's improbable odyssey has hinged on a few serendipitous events.

When he and his family left war-scarred Bosnia in 1996, they could have been sent anywhere in the United States. It was simply good fortune that they already had a cousin in Jacksonville, Fla., where there were plenty of tennis courts and sunshine year-round.

"That's where you're going," they were told by their sponsoring agency, Lutheran Social Services.

Delic, his parents and older sister, Lejla, arrived in Florida with $1,000 in cash and four suitcases, managing to find room for a pair of tennis rackets that belonged to 13-year-old Amer. They moved in with their relatives, seven people sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Lejla, the only English-speaker, translated when their parents went on job interviews.

It was sheer luck that a guidance counselor asked the right question and steered Amer to the tennis coach at Wolfson High School.

"I did not know there was such a thing as high school tennis," he said with a barely perceptible accent. He eventually played his way into a scholarship slot at the University of Illinois, where he spent three years. A few months after he won the NCAA singles title in 2003, his long-standing application to become a U.S. citizen was approved.

But luck and natural talent only get you so far. Delic, 6-foot-5 with a broad wingspan and a big but erratic serve, struggled with the transition to the professional ranks, playing Chutes and Ladders in the nether regions of the rankings. A year ago, he watched this tournament on crutches, hobbled by an ankle injury. He floundered after rehab and considered going back to Illinois to finish his degree, but his parents talked him into giving it a shot for a few more weeks.

The 24-year-old Delic raked his hands through his dark hair Monday, looking almost sheepish as he recalled how close he came to quitting. He had just beaten the No. 4 player in the world, Nikolay Davydenko, in straight sets on stadium court at the Sony Ericsson Open, and suddenly all those years of mucking around in the bush leagues compressed, accordion-like, into an apprenticeship worth doing.

Luck had nothing to do with Delic's decision last May to start working on his game almost from scratch. "Just absolute basic stuff, which I never used to do," he said. "Like for years and years, it just came naturally to me. But in matches, my serve percentage would go from 40 to 80, and it was up and down, up and down."

He hired Amelia Island, Fla.-based coach Paul Pisani and started going out to practice serves with a blue-collar bucket of balls. Work, not luck, earned Delic a series of good performances in Challenger-level tournaments late last year that nudged him into the top 100.

Pisani grinned as he confirmed that Delic needed work on his work ethic. "Everyone would tell him how great he was, and he got sick of hearing that," the coach said.

Delic scrambled to a career-high No. 93 at the end of last season and gave an early warning that he was a changed player at this year's Australian Open when he upended 48th-ranked Gilles Simon in the first round.

His second match, against France's Richard Gasquet, "was as much of a debacle as the first match was great, when he was playing so clean and crisp," Pisani said. "He wouldn't have won if you gave him the doubles alleys."

But Pisani sees Delic taking more steps forward than backward these days. "I had to show him that, you're playing guys who are great athletes, that really are professional," the coach said. "Now you have to work twice as hard and be that much more professional if you're going to compete at this level. It's a slow, gradual process, but it's gotten a lot better over the last few weeks."

Delic got into the main draw in Key Biscayne as a qualifier and beat France's Julien Benneteau in the first round and a seeded player, 37th-ranked Jose Acasuso of Argentina, in the second.

But the naturally gregarious Delic wasn't dousing himself with champagne after the win over Davydenko -- his first victory in four tries over a top-10 opponent, and the furthest he's advanced in a Masters Series event. He stood on the outdoor patio of the players' lounge a couple of hours later, studying his stats. Another top Argentinian, No. 25 Juan Ignacio Chela, awaits him in the fourth round.

"A few people a few days ago asked me, 'Making some money now?'" he told reporters in his post-match comments. "I'm like, 'What about all the expenses the last few years?' No, I'm thinking, just trying to play better, trying to improve.

"I mean, there's a lot of bad things I did out there today. First few games, I was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' But then I knew I could play better, so it was just a matter of cleaning those things up and seeing how far it takes me."

On April 2, the day after the tournament ends, Delic's family will celebrate the 11th anniversary of their arrival in the U.S., probably with a traditional lamb roast. Delic was slightly reticent about talking about his past while he was trying to work his way up to the ATP level. He wanted to be known for his tennis, not his feel-good story. Those two streams converged Monday, and Delic's feelings came out in a torrent.

"After the war, everything was so corrupt that [there] was absolutely no future for my parents or my family there. It was either stay there and kind of literally battle for survival day by day or start a new life somewhere else," he said. "They decided to take that chance and come over here without a word of English … …just because of my sister and me.

"I don't want to make a big drama out of this, but I appreciate some things, I think, a little more, and it's helped me."

Delic did need one more piece of luck to advance Monday. Davydenko was serving for the first set at 5-4, ad in, when, on his second set point, he lashed a forehand down the line that was called good. Delic challenged as Davydenko started to walk back to his chair, and the call was overruled by the Hawk-eye system. Delic eventually would break the Russian and win a tiebreak.

Had he been on any other court, the electronic line-calling system wouldn't have been available. But perhaps Delic was due for a break, in every sense of the word.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.