URBANA, May 9, 2019 (by Logan Hanson)
Aleks “Kova” Kovacevic, the Illini Men’s Tennis’ top singles player, has had a career season in 2019. Earning career high rankings in both singles and doubles this season, Aleks has been one of the keys to the No. 15 Illini’s strong season. Aleks is good at tennis, which is no surprise, but what may surprise some people is where he got his knack for tennis from.
Kova’s parents, Milan and Milanka Kovacevic, grew up as formidable tennis players in their own right. However, their play did not happen on a tennis court, but rather a table. Milan and Milanka, who both grew up in what was then Yugoslavia, were both national ping pong tournament players. The pair met at a countrywide tournament when Milan was 21 years old and Milanka was 19. The pair had been playing table tennis throughout their early lives from childhood into their early adulthood. The sport was much more popular in Europe than in the United States at the time according to the pair and if you were good enough, you could even make a living off of it.
“In Europe it is a very possible sport, it is a very serious sport, you can actually live off of that,” Milanka said. “You can play division one and earn nice salary and you could also be good coach and earn good living, so it is a very popular sport in Europe and Asia and here it’s getting better.”
Milanka soon would be making her living off of table tennis taking the step from amateurism to professionalism. Milanka, who was a division one table tennis player in ex-Yugoslavia, was invited to play and become a coach for Catalan Table Tennis Association in Barcelona, Spain coaching some of the top junior players in the country which she would do for two years. After that, Milanka would move to Italy to become the federal coach for the Italian Table Tennis Association from 1988-1993.
In December 1993, Milanka moved to Los Angeles to be with Milan, who had just graduated with his Ph.D. from UCLA and the two moved to New York City in January of 1994. Once the duo moved to the United States, they traded in their ping pong paddles for tennis racquets as the facilities for the sport were much better and easier to access since the two lived right near Central Park.
“We sort of switched to more tennis when we came to the United States,” Milan said. “We would go to Central Park to play tennis and bring people with us.”
On August 29, 1998, Aleks was born in New York City and from an early age it was clear that Aleks would be a special player on the tennis court. As soon as he could be brought to the courts, it seemed as if Aleks and the sport would be forever intertwined.
“He wanted to play and we gave him a racquet and then there were coaches and it just started like that,” Milanka said. “Nothing planned because on weekends we didn’t have a babysitter and we didn’t want to have one and we took him with us on a court and that’s how he started.”
Milan, who picked up table tennis late at age 14, still wishes he would have picked up the sport earlier. Because of that delay in starting his sporting career, Milan made sure Aleks and his younger sister Lena started their tennis journeys as early as possible.
“I always regret not starting earlier,” Milan said, “So I made them start at five in tennis because I thought that was a mistake on me not starting earlier.”
Although table tennis and tennis are certainly not the same sport, there is a lot of correspondence between the two. Knowing the art of table tennis well, the Kovacevic’s implemented some of their skills on the table into their teachings of Aleks.
“There are different, but there are also similarities,” Milan said. “For me, Federer style tennis has a lot of similarities to table tennis…working with them on techniques and strokes and everything and a lot of ideas come from table tennis.”
This teaching has still stuck with Aleks throughout his playing career. Aleks credits his parents for helping him to perfect his game from a young age, especially his dad.
“My parents were very technical in everything they did, my dad especially, a perfectionist kinda,” Aleks said. “So, growing up when I was young and developing my skills, he made sure everything was kind of right and perfect before I shaped my game to where I am at today.”
During his youth, Aleks began to separate himself from the rest of the pack. Aleks began at a young age training with United States Tennis Association coaches to help him hone and perfect his craft.
“All the coaches were saying he was very talented,” Milanka said. “The USTA once you train with them, you know you have something.”
After playing in professional tournament match against current Illini teammate Zeke Clark in the summer before his freshman year, Aleks would get a piece of advice from Zeke on where he should look to go to school.
“He came up to me after the match and he was like ‘Man, you should check out Illinois, you’re a good player, you should check it out,’” Aleks said, “I was like ‘whatever I’ll shoot an email to Brad’ and I did, got me on a visit here I met the team, met the coaches…I was like ‘you know what? Let’s do it.’ I committed. They wanted me. I wanted them and it just kind of clicked.”
“I just saw that this was a guy that can be a number one player for us…you do an eval you like him, you’ve got a future teammate that’s saying I like him a lot and he can play and so we took a swing at him and I think needless to say it has panned out pretty well,” Illini men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer said.
One of the words that came out of the conversations both from Aleks and those watching him was maturity. Since joining the Illini, Milan and Milanka feel that they have seen improvement for Aleks in this area which is one they felt he needed. The two credit the Illinois team and community for helping Aleks to be able to reach his fullest potential.
“It took time until his results caught up with his potential,” Milan said.
“I think it’s also maturity especially now,” Milanka said, “Being in an environment like this where he is in college. He’s on a team not alone. Here, the environment it’s incredible I think this is where he grew and it’s such a positive strong environment.”
Dancer also believes that Aleks’ emotional maturity has improved. He sees that this growth in his mind has helped him get better, but there’s still some room for improvement.
“The biggest thing is emotional maturity,” Dancer said. “He’s a guy that has grown a lot in his mind, his confidence, how he carries himself and he’s got a ways to go with that…but to me that’s what the program is about.”
For Aleks, the maturity did not necessarily come in one match. He felt that during this season his ability to play well against some of the top collegiate players has helped him to grow as a player on the court.
“Just gradually playing with and competing with guys that I never thought I would be playing against,” Aleks said. “Just seeing myself compete with guys on the pro tour and doing well on the pro tour…it’s just a gradual process of where I am kind of realizing where my level is at.”
According to the Kovacevic’s, Illinois has been the perfect spot for Aleks. They feel that Aleks is hitting his stride in life and that the Illinois program has a lot to do with it.
“His game is going up and he is just confirming what everybody thought when he was young,” Milanka said. “I think everything is getting together in his life. I think he is very happy…I think that choice that he made was excellent and I think the coaches, team are just making him grow even more and be happy and they’re all influencing all of that for good.”
For the Kovacevic’s, tennis has been a part of their bloodlines for generations. But with seeing Aleks’ success for the Illini this season, the future performances may bring even more tennis memories for the family.