Former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic wears many labels. She’s an entertainer, a glitter queen, a tennis star and a people person. This week, she’s unveiling another side: mentor.
The Serb was spotted courtside at both of No. 121 Danka Kovinic’s qualifying matches last weekend at the Family Circle Cup, cheering loudly and sending Kovinic signs of encouragement. Jankovic was frequently seen putting her arms together to form a triangle, which would make Kovinic start laughing. (Jankovic later told reporters that her signal symbolizes a peak, and means you just did something great.)
Kovinic, the top Montenegrin tennis player, has certainly deserved the praise this week. The 20-year-old qualified in dramatic fashion, following up a double bagel over American Allie Kiick with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(8) win over Japanese teenager Naomi Osaka.
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Then, in the first round of the main draw, she got the best win of her career 6-2, 6-3 over Christina McHale.
“Super exciting,” Kovinic told me after the match. “It was very tough for me to finish the match because it was so exciting.”
Kovinic plays Belinda Bencic in the second round on Wednesday. If she wins that match, her third-round opponent will be Jankovic.
“She is my favorite tennis player, and my coach used to coach her before,” Kovinic said of her cheerleader. “She’s a very nice, very funny girl. She’s a good friend. I really like to spend time with her.”
“I’m really her idol,” Jankovic said.
The two met at a Kid’s Day in a Serbian tennis club when Kovinic was only 10 years old. Jankovic was there to play some points against the kids.
“She asked me to hit a couple of balls with her,” Jankovic said of her protege. “I said, ‘You’re so talented, You’re so cute,’ and she was so excited. Then she went to hit the ball and she like swung at the ball and fell over. She tripped and she was on the ground. She was so funny. So I remember that.”
Kovinic remembers that day well, although a different memory sticks out to her.
“I wanted badly to win a point against her,” she said. “I lost one, and almost start to crying, and then she said, ‘Okay, come on we play one more.’ Then I was so happy that I win the next point because she make ‘mistake.'”
Throughout the years they saw each other sporadically, but once Kovinic began to play the junior Grand Slams when she was 15, they became closer. JJ even invited her to be in her player’s box at Roland Garros five years ago.
“Sometimes in Belgrade we practiced in the same club. Every time I saw her I’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Danka,'” Kovinic said, extending her hand to mimic a handshake. “When I was in Rolland Garros we went to her apartment and she opened the door and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Danka.’ She said, ‘Okay, geez, I know, you can stop introducing yourself.’
“From then I start to be relaxed, you know, to make friends.”
Jankovic was always Kovinic’s favorite player because of her happy and relaxed personality, and of course because of that backhand down-the-line. Now as friends, she continues to cheer on Jankovic (her twitter account proves that), but she also goes to Jankovic for advice.
“I love sharing my knowledge or my experience with the youngsters,” Jankovic said. “I think it’s great to give back.”
“Her advice is to smile, to make jokes,” Kovinic said. “Everyone knows it’s JJ, smile.”
“I think overall it’s important to enjoy your sport, to not put pressure on yourself,” Jankovic said. “I think in general people put so much pressure on themselves, they’re so talented, so gifted but they can’t perform on a high level because they’re so tentative, so stressed out that they have to do so well. You don’t have to do anything, or prove anything to anyone other than yourself. Play because you want to play, not because you want to fulfill someone else’s dreams.
“The most important thing is to give 100%, always give your maximum and if that opponent beats you, well done. You enjoy the competition, you play fair, and if you lose, you have to accept it.”
Now, Jankovic will have to see if Kovinic–who is playing the best tennis of her life–is able to turn that advice into a match with her favorite player.
“I’m her role model,” Jankovic said. “She really admires me, has my shoes, has my things in her room, and it’s unbelievable that, you know, maybe I can play against her.
“It’s kind of like unreal, you know, that I was hitting balls with her when she was like 10 years old, and it was her dream to just meet me, and now I might be playing against her. It’s really crazy, but very nice at the same time.”