Kovacevic's Full-Circle Moment: Watching, Meeting & Now Playing Djokovic
American Aleksandar Kovacevic had just turned seven when he went to the US Open and watched a five-set, first-round thriller between 18-year-olds Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils. Fast forward 18 years, World No. 114 Kovacevic is set to make his Grand Slam main draw debut at Roland Garros and face the winner of that match, 22-time major champion Djokovic.
“Watching him growing up was amazing. He’s the best player to ever play,” Kovacevic told ATPTour.com. “To play any of the ‘Big Three’ in any match, nonetheless a Grand Slam, the chances of that are getting smaller and smaller as the years go. Even though I feel like I just started my tennis career, it's something that I think all of the tennis players that are playing now want to do at some point is to play one of those. I just feel kind of lucky to be able to play Novak on stage like this. Honoured to play, it’s going to be super cool.”
Kovacevic was sitting in the bleachers on Court 10 at Flushing Meadows in 2005, when Djokovic, then an 18-year-old just inside the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, survived the humid New York afternoon and Monfils in the first round. Alongside Kovacevic was his younger sister Lena, his father Milan, who hails from Serbia, and mother Milanka, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After the match, Djokovic posed for a picture with ‘Aleks’.
“Djokovic was just coming up from juniors as one of the top players,” Milanka recalled. “We went there to watch him and nobody was there. Half an hour later, that court was so full and we were [a] few of the people that were cheering for Djokovic and I think that’s why he noticed us. After the spectacular match, we waited to congratulate him and he remembered seeing us and that’s why he took a picture with Aleks.”
Kovacevic had picked up a racquet for the first time just two years prior, aged five. He grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City, a five-minute walk from the iconic Central Park, where Kovacevic first began to play tennis.
As a child, Kovacevic trained at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. At age 11, he attended an open tryout for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy and was chosen by McEnroe among a group of 200 students to receive a full scholarship. In 2010, Kovacevic hit with McEnroe and Andy Roddick at halftime of a World TeamTennis match in New York. Little did they know he would someday become a professional.
Kovacevic moved to south Florida as a teen to continue his training and elected to attend college. He enjoyed a standout career at the University of Illinois, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in finance and was a two-time ITA All-American. His junior year, Kovacevic became the first Illini player to reach the semi-finals of the NCAA Singles Championships since Kevin Anderson in 2007.
“I think college as a pathway is important because sometimes you feel you aren’t ready for what the pro tour entails,” Kovacevic said. “What helped me the most in college was maturing a lot, understanding life a little better and using the tools I had there to become ready to grind on Tour. Starting out on the pro tour can be kind of ugly, you have to be mature for it.”
One of the ways Kovacevic found ‘maturity and growth’ in college was being pushed outside of his comfort zone by Illinois head coach Brad Dancer.
“Brad had us do things outside our comfort zone and helped us manage being an adult,” Kovacevic said. “We went skydiving and hiking off trails in Arizona with rattlesnakes around. He put stress on being your own person and being independent and that was big for me.”
Throughout Kovacevic’s five years at Illinois, Dancer was able to see what he is like on and off the court.
Kovacevic at this month's ATP Challenger Tour 175 event in Cagliari. Credit: Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour
“He’s really, really intelligent. His parents are both very bright. He’s got a huge heart, almost to the detriment of him,” Dancer said. “He’s got a big love for other people and he was a tremendous team guy. We used to have a joke, ‘Everybody loves Kova’. I think people just connect with him, he’s very easy going off the court. Almost everybody gets along with him.”
Kovacevic turned pro in 2021 and was eager to make his Grand Slam qualifying debut at that year's US Open, where he made it to the final round before suffering one of the toughest losses of his career. The following day, Kovacevic returned to the gym at Flushing Meadows and crossed paths with Djokovic.
“My final round qualifying match against [Marco] Trungelliti, I had seven or eight match points. It was one of the most heartbreaking losses I’ve ever had,” Kovacevic said. “The next day, when I was in the gym, Novak told me he heard about my match and asked if I wanted to join his fitness session.
“I was shocked. He was chasing history that week and didn’t have to give me his time. It was an incredible experience. At the end, Novak told me that I’ve got a bright future and I should train with him in Serbia.”
Kovacevic has been on the rise ever since that moment. His hard work has paid off especially this year, when in January the 24-year-old won his maiden Challenger trophy in Cleveland, defeating Wu Yibing in the final one week before the Chinese star went on a historic run to the Dallas Open title. Kovacevic also triumphed at the Waco Challenger and reached a career-high No. 101 in April.
Kovacevic at the 2023 Cleveland Challenger, which he won. Credit: Ben Peskar
“To win my first Challenger was special, it felt great,” Kovacevic said. “It’s something I wanted to check off my list before moving into ATP. Not something that I had to check off or that it was necessary to get into the Top 100 or 50, but definitely a plus. It’s something I’m happy to put behind me.”
Kovacevic made his tour-level debut at last year’s ATP 250 event in Seoul, where as a lucky loser he defeated then-World No. 32 Miomir Kecmanovic and completed a semi-final run before falling to eventual champion Yoshihito Nishioka.
The American has his sights set on more breakthroughs in hopes of reaching one of his career goals, which is ultimately cracking the Top 10 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Kovacevic knows “that’s far away as of now”, and he will be fully focussed on the task at hand — facing Djokovic, whom he first met nearly two decades ago.
“Playing the best of the best in the first round is not the most ideal draw,” Kovacevic said. “But you never know, the score is going to be 0-0 on Monday to start.”