Blood, sweat, tears and tennis. The rise-and-grind mentality. This is not your typical college experience. Not even close. Each year 64 ambitious men take their spot in the men’s singles draw at the NCAA D-1 championships, and proceed to battle for the ultimate prize in college tennis. Bragging rights are on the line. History as well. You may recognize some former champions… Do the names Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe ring a bell?
Today we turn our spotlight on the NCAA’s generation next: to a talented 22-year-old from the University of Illinois by the name of Aleks Kovacevic. A semifinalist at the NCAA’s in 2019, Kovacevic is back to take a final run at the trophy before he sets his sights on going pro. Let’s find out more about this talented New York native, and the sacrifices he has made to put himself in a position to contend for a national title.
Bright lights, big city: an unlikely beginning
Kovacevic, the son of two elite ping pong players, was born in New York City and lived in the Big Apple until he was 15. Most elite tennis players tend to hail from hotbed states like Florida and California, but Kovacevic, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, took the path less travelled.
"My parents moved to New York right before I was born in 1998, because my dad was working at Columbia University in New York and my mom followed him there,” Kovacevic tells Sigrún. “They both met on the ping pong pro tour, so that's how they met. We lived about a five-minute walk from [some of] the only public tennis courts in the city which are the Central Park Tennis Courts."
Not only was Kovacevic a natural on the tennis court, he was also quite good and attracting top coaching. From an early age he partnered with Gilad Bloom, former ATP No.61 from Israel. Bloom took Kovacevic under his wing, and brought him along for the ride when he became the Director of Tennis at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
“I started out with Gilad basically, right after I went from Central Park,” Kovacevic says. “I was with him in the Bronx for a while and he ended up going over to John McEnroe's place at Randall's Island, and when he became one of the directors there I came with him, and met John.”
Suddenly Kovacevic found himself learning the game with an American legend. We know Johnny Mac for his seven Grand Slam titles and hot-tempered brand of serve-and-volley tennis, but how many know that before McEnroe was a Sports Illustrated cover kid, he had spent a year at Stanford and won the NCAA singles title in 1978?
“John coached me for a little bit as well, it was great when I was a little kid,” Kovacevic said. “I definitely knew who he was but I didn't really understand how cool that was at the time. He's really involved as well. A lot of pros might have their own academies and stuff, but they're not really there, but that guy is very passionate about tennis. He's always around and that was super cool.
Not a typical path to D-1 tennis
Kovacevic really didn’t have a stellar junior career in terms of ranking. Crazy as it sounds, he never even cracked the Top 500 in the ITF junior rankings. He was talented, and top coaches were taking notice, but New York is a tough place to carve out a junior tennis career. Kovacevic says he needed a big wake-up call, and he got exactly that when he decided to switch up his training base. He moved to Boca Raton and started to devote himself to the sport, going the homeschool route and picking up his training with renowned coach Rick Macci.
"Once I grew up a little bit I realized that I'm not just going to be a pro because people tell me I'm a pro, I have to work for it,” he said. “It was kind of a wakeup call and just actually moving to Boca was probably one of the catalysts for that. That definitely was the biggest thing, just kind of getting that wakeup call and being like 'ok, yeah, I gotta work hard for this.'”
Switching to homeschooling was critical for Kovacevic, because it bought him time to unlock his potential. He talked about the difficulties he faced in New York. Six-hour school days and hour-long commutes, just to get to practice. Until he left for Florida, tennis always had a more “recreational” feel. That changed in Boca.
"It wasn't something where I was like 'I'm going to homeschool because I know I am going to be a pro.'” he said. “It was more like the only way I would ever go pro is if I do this home school."
Thanks to the change, Kovacevic's game was flourishing.
“You're around tennis and just that culture of like 'We're doing this because we want to be great,'” Kovacevic said. “And the freedom of doing school online - the comparison to that is honestly sitting in a school room for six hours a day. It's not even good for the body, honestly. It's a very recreational feel.”
College can wait
After a few years in Boca, Kovacevic was a vastly improved player, but he still wasn’t feeling ready for college. His parents recommended Ivy League schools, but none of them moved the needle for the youngster. He was prepared to skip a semester and start in the winter, when he took a loss that turned into a win.
Kovacevic dropped a three-setter to a player named Zeke Clark in qualifying for a futures event, but serendipity was soon to strike.
"I had lost to him 7-5 in the third in that match,” Kovacevic recalls, “and I'm sitting on the concrete by the courts, just booking my flight on my phone and he comes up to me and says 'Dude you're a great player, what are you doing for college?'
It was Clark that got his new friend to visit, and helped him connect dots with Fighting Illini coach Brad Dancer. And it is Clark that is a big part of the Fighting Illini’s success in 2021, right along with Kovacevic.
“I ended up visiting and I loved the team,” he remembers. “I felt like it was the place for me. Not only that, there was another three or four freshman coming in with me if I decided to go right away. I was like 'You know what? I love this place right now, and I have four guys in my class, I'm just going to start now.’
"I literally committed to school about a month before school started, maybe even less, which is very abnormal."
The decision to commit sparked more growth in Kovacevic’ game and by time he arrived on campus he was ready to do serious damage.
The Constant Progression
Kovacevic hit the ground running with the program and learned how to win at the college level quickly.
"I played literally every match my freshman year,” he said. “That was the biggest thing for me in terms of learning, was just playing. I learned how to beat college guys early, pretty fast I started winning a lot of matches and then after a while, after I developed my game a little bit, next thing you know I was playing guys that are playing pro tournaments. When you do something like that it definitely gives you belief in terms of how you can match up against pros."
But Kovacevic knew he still had a lot to learn. There were lots of elements of his game that could be shined up. That’s why he latched onto All-American Aleksandr Vukic - he wanted to learn from an elite college player.
"Having Vuky around to practice with every day was amazing,” he says of the Australian native, who is currently ranked 209 in the world. “You kind of get an insight on what exactly it takes to get to the next level. Very specific things. The first thing I noticed when I was a freshman was that his ball speed was just a lot higher than a lot of other players. And if I could tell you one thing that I improved a lot in college, it was that. Raising my ball speed a lot while I was staying consistent. I'm hitting the ball a lot bigger but staying within myself."
Hitting the next level and reaching the NCAA semis
It was 2019 when Kovacevic hit his stride as a college player. With Vukic departed he took over the No.1 spot for the Illini and had a dominant season that took him all the way to the NCAA singles semifinals. It was, clearly, his time to shine.
"I think it was just confidence,” he said. “Tennis is just hugely mental and before that season I didn't know if I could compete with the top guys in the nation. I played No.1 on my team for the first two or three matches of that season and I beat some really good guys that just kind of gave me that huge confidence."
Kovacevic would be taking massive momentum into his senior year. He earned All-America honors, and first team All-Big Ten. He was the program’s Most Improved Player as well as its MVP.
A critical decision is made
That’s where the story gets complicated. 2020 was supposed to be a blowout year for Kovacevic. He’d make a run at a national title and then begin his pro career - but the coronavirus had other ideas. The pandemic put the kibosh on the season and left Kovacevic at a crossroad. He had loved his days as a Fighting Illini but he was itching to turn pro and get started with the rest of his life. In his head he had pretty much decided to leave school, when a critical moment occurred.
Kovacevic says his teammates pulled him back in - not with their words but with their actions.
“I felt like I had proven myself,” he says. “I am a guy that likes to play for something all the time. Our team had never really done anything too special, and last year we were really struggling so when I would go out there and play some of my singles matches I was kind of like 'What am I really doing here?'"
But things changed during a weekend at ITA national indoors. Kovacevic left the event to go play a pro tournament and when he tracked his teams’ progress he was mightily impressed.
"It was just a very inspiring weekend,” he recalls. “I actually left for one of the futures, the day they beat Virginia, a Top 5 team in the nation, without me there. I was like 'Wow, this is a different team than I've seen before.' It really seemed like they wanted to do something special and I just wanted to be a part of that. That's what I was looking for. A team that is driven to achieve things. And we have this year, which is amazing. We had never won a Big Ten championship, we had never beaten Ohio State, both things we just did.”
Having made the decision to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA, Kovacevic hopes to make it pay off in this year’s NCAA men’s singles draw.
"I still think that I could win it,” he says. “Tennis is a sport of very small margins. To really dominate a tournament you have to be miles ahead of everyone there, and I don't think I am miles ahead of everyone there. I'm just going to take it one match at a time. I like my chances against anyone.”
Post-interview editor's note: Kovacevic guided the Illini to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA team competition and reached the quarter-finals in singles, falling to Daniel Rodrigues from South Carolina, the #2 seed. Now that he’s made the most of his college eligibility it’s time to go pro: keep an eye out for him on the pro circuit!