Darko Grncarov was just a regular young sportsman set to embark on the long, winding road towards stardom, until he was told by doctors he may never play tennis again.
Born in Skopje, Macedonia, he grew up idolising the Williams sisters, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and hadn’t known life without a tennis racquet in his hand since his uncle first bought him one when he was four.
There’s plenty of sporting blood in the Grncarov family. His father Nikola and uncle Atanas had both played professional football in their home country and Darko’s own progress in tennis circles had been marked.
By the time he was 18, Grncarov had practised with familiar faces on the ATP Tour – hitting with Viktor Troicki, Gilles Simon and Robin Haase – and he was set to make his professional debut at an event in Turkey in December 2016.
But with his bags packed and preparations made, disaster struck.
After long practises and training sessions in the gym, a blood vessel burst in his brain and Grncaraov suffered a stroke, which left him in a coma for six months.
‘I had the stroke on the right side on my brain,’ he exclusively told Metro.co.uk.
‘After the day of the stroke, I woke up for like two hours and I just remember screaming because my head was hurting so bad. The next thing I remember is waking up after six months.
‘I couldn’t walk for months and lost hearing in my right ear. I was told I will never play tennis again.’
Once the gravity of the situation had dawned on him after waking up from his six-month coma, Grncarov slumped into a state of depression.
‘The first few days I was depressed because I couldn’t walk I was told I won’t play something that I’ve been playing my whole life again,’ he recalled.
‘It was so bad that if there was a machine for deleting my memories. I would’ve paid however much it took.
‘I thought I was paralysed and I lost my mind.’
With the support of his family, particularly his fashion blogger sister Elena and her professional footballer husband Blagoja Ljamcevski, and the tennis world, Grncarov soon switched his attention to the road to recovery.
After consulting with specialists, and still at risk of suffering another stroke, he was told a full recovery could take up to seven years.
But Grncarov took to doing exercises in secret and shocked his loved ones by returning to a tennis court in November.
‘I had to take things very slowly at first,’ he added. ‘The biggest stroke specialist in Canada had given me some medicines and exercises for my legs.
‘I was told not to get my hopes up and to them slowly, as it would take five to seven years for me to be fully healed.
‘But I secretly exercised a lot. All I could think about was tennis and having the feeling to play on the tour and to be able to walk, run, play and enjoy life.
‘So after three or four months, I surprised everyone. They were really shocked. But they were scared of it happening again.
‘I just believed it wouldn’t happen and I took my recovery seriously.
‘There’s a part of me that is still scared of going through it again, but I’m so happy to have tennis, which keeps those bad feelings away.’
Grncarov has made a near-full recovery, although he is deaf in his right ear. And his lack of hearing on one side serves as a constant reminder of what could have been.
‘The hearing never came back. I’m like dead in my right ear,’ he said.
— Darko Grncarov (@DarkoGrncarov) July 12, 2017
‘Unfortunately when a person suffers a stroke, he has a 99% chance of losing something. But in the end I’m happy I lost only half of my hearing rather than something that is visual.
‘I’m still young and I know I would have been devastated if I’d lost my ability to walk perfectly or to talk perfectly so I’m just saying after this that in every unhappiness there is happiness.
‘I could have lost it all. Yet I lost only my right hearing. That’s how I motivate myself.’
Incredibly, the 19-year-old is set to be involved at a Challenger event in Rennes in January and he is hoping to make his main tour debut some months later.
New tan and some practice. 2018 I’m coming strong! pic.twitter.com/UqpRY0MU7i
— Darko Grncarov (@DarkoGrncarov) November 19, 2017
But he’s not setting his sights low by any means.
‘As long as I keep being healthy everything will be in place and by that I’m looking forward to being in the top-100 as soon as possible,’ he smiled.
‘After that I’m going to aim for the highest spot and going to fight with everything I have.’
Should Grncarov achieve his target of becoming a household name, the ATP Tour should have a colourful new addition, with a very unorthodox game.
‘That’s what makes me unique I think,’ he laughed. ‘I can play with a one-handed backhand as well as a two-handed backhand and I also usually play with two-handed forehand and I can play as a lefty.
A lefty serve pic.twitter.com/qFbRvB85Wj
— Darko Grncarov (@DarkoGrncarov) September 11, 2017
‘I started using it [the two-handed forehand] for defence mode at first but after it became my biggest weapon and I play fiercely while using it. I barely use my one-hand forehand which is also good.’
With a big serve – that reaches around 138mph – and dominating game, Grncarov favours fast hard courts and grass, while he believes his game is most similar to Murray’s due in part to his ‘personality and aggression’.
‘People usually say that my game is the same as Andy Murray’s and The Djoker but mostly Andy’s. And I think that too.
‘I respect Andy a lot and I’m very honoured to be compared to him even before my career has really started.’
There’s a long way to go before he can be considered at Murray’s level, but having come so far already, Grncarov has proven he certainly won’t be one to shirk the fight.