Tennis coach and player become friends through shared experience of overcoming struggle
VANCOUVER — Sanja was a child in a warzone. Yugoslavia, 1991. Jim was a man with a death sentence. Brain cancer, 2015. Today, they are overcomers, and today, the game of tennis unites them.
Born in Croatia to an actor and a pharmacist, Sanja Lemes was about 9 years old and living in Yugoslavia when the Yugoslav Wars began. They would give way to the splitting of a nation as well as the Bosnian War and genocide.
Her parents sent her to Germany. Her grandmother was there. She would be safe. When she left, now in Bosnia, she took with her only one thing: a tennis racket.
“I think the funny thing about the war is you get used to things,” she said. “The bombings, the no food, you can’t get, you know, the newest Nikes. I think you just get used to that.”
Jim Boyer settled in Vancouver decades ago. He raised a family, and fostered a community. His daughter introduced him to tennis in 2005. He liked the game. It was full of movement and friends.
Jim joined a class of older tennis players at Vancouver Tennis Center (VTC). The group is still together after more than 10 years; they’re coach, a woman named Sanja Lemes.
On Aug. 21, 2015, Jim had to put down his racket. He was told, “You have very aggressive Glioblastoma.” Brain cancer. He was given a rare chance. Jim would be one of 16 people, nationwide, to receive an experimental treatment.
Unfortunately, 15 people in that group, succumbed to their cancer. One survived; Jim Boyer. He picked up his racket again. He’s still holding it. Positive and thankful.
“I’m the only one that had positive results. Everybody else had gone on and, and I’ve been so blessed that that mine went away,” he said. “Little by little, it went away and now my tumors gone, my cancer is gone. You never know when life will give you a turn. Tennis has just been a wonderful adventure, to do exercise and be motivated and be around people and have fun with people.”
Sanja started playing tennis after deciding she liked the easy-going but still competitive atmosphere more than gymnastics. As a gymnast, she was the last Yugoslavian Champion under 12.
Some of her first memories of the game are playing against an outdoor wall near where she lived in Bosnia for 18 months after returning from her grandmother’s in Germany.
“I had that wall and a tennis racket for my peace,” she said.
“When we came to Germany, my uncle, he took me to a tennis club, and he’s like, ‘She has talent, but we have no means to provide for this sport,’” she said. “So there was a coach, and I think he was from Czech Republic, and he saw me hit a few balls and he’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ll take care of her.’ I don’t know what made him do that, but I felt like they thought I had some talent.”
When her parents were able to bring the family to the United States, they settled in Washington. Her father had been watching “Sleepless in Seattle” just before his immigration interview.
Once in the area, Sanja began playing tennis in earnest, as part of a team. Before long, she received her full-ride scholarship to the University of Portland. She would go on to excel in the program and play on a professional level, achieving the ultimate title of National Adult Mixed Champion.
“That was awesome, because … tennis is kind of an individual sport, and I’m always a people person,” she said. “I’m always hard on myself, and, you know, I think that was a great experience at UP that I was able to learn to relax a little bit and take the pressure off myself a little bit being around a team.”
After beating his cancer, Jim returned to the VTC and his family of players coached by Sanja. Now, just as before, he is the life of the party. He has even brought several friends into the sport through the class.
The class is a closed group, and Sanja has lead them through the years, once and a while adding a new face. Many members, including Jim, have been with the group for so long, they are known to joking say, “Someone has to die to for a new person to get in this class!”
The friendship now shared by Sanja and Jim is one of unique perspectives. Through each’s struggles, whether it be war or illness, they chose to remain positive and thankful. And they still do.
“Don’t let challenges take you down. Look at the positive side,” Jim said. “Regardless what happens. I think sometimes when you go through turmoil like that, you have a different view, and it’s to be happy and be positive and be thankful for the things you have.”
“Tennis has given me so much in life,” Sanja said. “I don’t think about my job being a job necessarily, because I get to, you know, play with Jim … And I get to spend my time teaching kids and adults and just, it’s putting smiles on their faces as well, which is kind of a nice thing.”
Now the Head Pro at VTC, Sanja, along with Jim encourages everyone to come out and try tennis. “It’s a great workout,” they say, “a sport for many personalities.” A sport it is, but for Sanja Lemes and Jim Boyer tennis will always be much more, because with tennis came their triumph.