For Aleksandar Kovacevic, playing Novak Djokovic is a dream come true. He was just hoping it would come a little later, and not in the first round of Roland-Garros.
“If you asked me two years ago or earlier, I would say that it’s all I want and that I don’t care whether he ’kills’ me on the court or not,” Kovacevic told Tennis Majors. “My mentality is different now, I want to do well and I feel I have the level to compete with most of the guys, so playing Novak Djokovic in the first round might not be what I was hoping to see.”
Aleksandar’s father Milan, originally from the Serbian capital Belgrade, moved to the United States to study computer science at the UCLA college. His mother Milanka is from Travnik, best known by the depiction of Ivo Andric – the Serbian Nobel Prize in Literature winner – in his novel Travnička hronika (The Days of the Consuls).
Both were almost professional table tennis players and met on the junior circuit before creating a life together in the United States.
It’s very rare to see tennis players from Manhattan.
“We had a ping pong table in our basement in New York, but I didn’t like it as much as tennis,” Kovacevic said.
Their home was a five-minute walk from the tennis courts at Central Park, so Aleksandar first picked up a racquet in the heart of Manhattan.
“I took my first tennis lessons there. It’s cool when I go there for the US Open. It’s a tourist spot and as a kid I didn’t even realize that it was such a weird, unique place to start playing tennis. It’s very rare to see tennis players from Manhattan. When I was 15 or 16, I had to move at some point to Boca Raton, Florida, because it’s much easier for tennis. Any other courts you want to find in New York are a 40-minute commute, and in Central Park you can get one hour a day.’
Every summer, Kovacevic went to Italy, where his mother’s family lived, and to Belgrade, where he had a grandfather. When he passed away and tennis obligations started to mount, Aleksandar stopped going back to Serbia.
“We still have an apartment in Belgrade, but it’s vacant. The interesting thing, though, is that I played on the red clay for the first time in Serbia, on Partizan and Crvena zvezda (two biggest clubs in Serbia) courts. I was 10 years old and that was my last time on red clay before this swing now.”
Kovacevic: “It’s a dream come true”
It was tough to get a hang of things. Heading into Roland Garros, Kovacevic lost all three matches he played – to Taro Daniel, Stefano Napolitano and Gianluca Mager. He put in a good week of practice, started to find his groove, but the draw was merciless as he drew Novak Djokovic in the very first round.
“It’s definitely a dream come true, he is the best to ever play the game. If you asked me two years ago or earlier, I would say that it’s all I want and that I don’t care whether he ’kills’ me on the court or not. My mentality is different now, I want to do well and I feel I have the level to compete with most of the guys, so playing Novak in the first round might not be what I was hoping to see. On the other hand, it’s a dream come true to play against one of the Big 3, one of these legends – that box will be checked now, but it would have been nicer if we met in the third or fourth round, providing that I would win a couple of matches. I want to give my best effort and you never know. We all saw Fabian Marozsan in Rome, he was hoping to take a few games off Carlos Alcaraz and then ended up winning the match. It’s sports. Either way, I am really excited.”
It was extremely valuable for me, to see how Djokovic behaves off the court as well.
Kovacevic was invited by Djokovic to practice in Belgrade and although he is yet to take him up on that offer, a few conversations they had in New York a few years ago resonated deeply with the 24-year-old.
“In Adelaide we played soccer together, that was fun, but in New York a couple of years ago he gave me a lot of good tips that I still use to this day – fitness and nutrition stuff most of all. Not revealing too much of his routines, but for me, it was very valuable information. Until that point, my college teammate Aleksandar Vukic was the most professional player I’ve seen and he too didn’t know what exactly he was doing. So, spending some time with Novak and seeing the way he operates was precious. Warming up before matches, Novak spends one hour before even hitting the ball, doing all the other stuff starting with mental preparation. It was extremely valuable for me, to see how he behaves off the court as well. Like I said, I still use what I learned then”.
In April, Kovacevic was ranked 101 in the world, and now he has dropped to No 114. He doesn’t regret the decision of playing on clay as he believes it was the best in the long run.
“I had the option to go play on hard courts in Korea, where I had success last year. I knew that going on clay may cost me ranking-wise, but I had to face clay at some point. It’s a dream to be Top 100, but long-term, it’s more important to learn how to play on red clay in order to have a full career. I want to be a well-rounded player able to play well on all surfaces. I struggled in the last few weeks, but this week of practice was huge for me, I feel like I am finally getting used to it. It’s been a learning experience and the match with Novak will be just that as well – getting to play the best in the world is awesome.”
Asked what he found most difficult in adjusting to red clay, Kovacevic quickly comes up with an answer:
“Honestly, it’s getting my feet under me, I feel a bit alienated from the surface – the first week, I was slipping and sliding everywhere. Finding my footing proved to be more difficult than the speed of the court itself. My game is big – serve and the first ball after – but I did well on an extremely slow hard court in Phoenix, so I was hoping that it would be similar to that on clay. But the movement… When opponents hit behind you, it’s tough to stop, get your feet under you and move back to the other side. Apart from that, the biggest challenge has been mentally, I feel. Knowing that I haven’t played at all on red clay and it’s tough to face guys who grew up on this stuff. At this point, after six weeks, I feel much more comfortable than at the beginning, I feel like I’m getting over the hump a little bit.”
“I loved Federer’s fluidity and I tried to model my strokes after him” – Kovacevic
As a kid, his father helped Aleksandar when it came to the technique of his strokes. Milan was blown away with Roger Federer’s fluidity, so he implored his son to hit a one-handed backhand. And Aleksandar did, ever since he was five.
“I also liked Federer, he was my favorite player in terms of how the game was played. I loved his fluidity and I tried to model my strokes after him.”
Since a few months, he has been coached by Brian Garber, along with Dean Goldfine – who travels with Ben Shelton as well and earlier worked with Sebastian Korda, Todd Martin and Andy Roddick among others.
“Also, my dad is also around when it comes to any technique stuff – he is just a super crazy, genius brain. He doesn’t really know how to coach the mental side of things and he can get in the way sometimes, but when it comes to technique and analysis, he is incredible.”
Growing up in New York, Kovacevic has been to the US Open a lot of times. He remembers Djokovic and Gael Monfils battling it out when they were really young, but he kept the image of other players in his mind, not only the biggest stars.
“I loved watching Fabrice Santoro. I didn’t try to replicate any of his game, but I remember watching him play an epic five-setter against James Blake at the US Open (in 2007). I loved watching a lot of players, Olivier Rochus (former world No 24) for instance – a shorter guy (168 cm), who played one-handed backhand as well.”
Outside the court, Aleksandar enjoys electronic music, listening to podcasts and he is “all over the place“ when it comes to TV shows (“recently I watched The Sopranos for the first time “).
“Outside of tennis, my favorite thing to do is snowboarding. We used to drive to Pennsylvania for two hours, but now I have a really good Austrian friend. His name is Franz Weber (multiple world record holder in speed skiing) and he owns a house at lake Tahoe, so we go skiing there when I get the time. I follow soccer as well, I grew up playing it, and coach Garber loves it too, he is a huge Manchester City fan.”
Lastly, we asked Aleksandar what his long-term goals were.
“I don’t want to go crazy, I just want to see how good I can be. I hope to be in the top 10 in the world at some point. Firstly, I have to play the elite, I still don’t know what that level looks like, so I have to play the best before setting any goals like that.”