Kovinic Is Thriving On Charleston’s Green Clay

Danka Kovinic (photo: Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 10, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the Volvo Car Open semifinals unfolded at the LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Center in Charleston, S.C., Saturday afternoon, following the elimination of top seed Ashleigh Barty by No. 71 Paula Badosa in the quarterfinal round, there were no Top 10 seeds remaining. Come Sunday, the winner from the original field of 56 will become a first-time WTA titlist.

Montenegro’s 91st-ranked Danka Kovinic figures why not her? Her string of good fortune on green clay this week has included wins over Canada’s 72nd-ranked Leylah Fernandez, No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and No. 11 seed Yulia Putintseva from Kazakhstan. Saturday, she added No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur, to the list. Kovinic beat the Tunisian 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 19 minutes, in not only her first Charleston semifinal but her first WTA semifinal of any kind in five years.

Kovinic dominated the 28th-ranked Jabeur from start to finish, outpointing her 66-53. She will play No. 15 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia in Sunday’s final. The 38th-ranked Kudermetova defeated Badosa, 6-3, 6-3, in one hour and 30 minutes to advance.

“I feel wonderful, to be honest, right now,” Kovinic said during an on-court interview moments after her victory. “I feel a little tired, but to give my best on this court, I’m happy to be through to the final.

“I went out [today] to try to win and to show what I could do; hopefully I’m doing good.”

Later, during her virtual press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Kovinic what has surprised her the most in her run to the championship final. She answered: “What has surprised me the most is how I have stayed calm and composed during tough moments. I think that’s the main change in my game – my personality on the court. I didn’t even think ‘Wow, I’m in the semifinals or that I might be winning this match or this tournament.’ I was just staying in the moment and playing point by point. It’s made a big difference in my game.”

Round by round, Kovinic has looked and played with poise and confidence. A day after upsetting the World No. 11 Kvitova on Althea Gibson Club Court, she came back to beat Putintseva 6-7 (2), 7-5, 6-1 in two hours and 53 minutes after being two points away from a straight-set loss.

“I really think this clay suits me well,” Kovinic said of the Charleston green clay this week during a virtual interview with reporters. “It’s a little bit faster than the red clay. I think my kick serve is tricky for my opponents to return. I’m feeling really good here.”

After going winless in two previous head-to-head meetings against Kvitova, both in 2016 at Indian Wells and Roland Garros, Kovinic said after her breakthrough victory against the Czech star: “I’m pleased with everything I showed on the court. It was really my day. I felt really good out here. I was really looking forward to this match because we had two matches a few years ago and I lost both of them. It was very tough. This was my revenge.”

After coming within points of beating Kvitova twice but with nothing to show for it, Kovinic suggested: “I think everything I was missing in those two matches I did well.”

Born in Cetinje, the formal royal capital city of Montenegro, Kovinic is the face of tennis in her Balkan country (population approximately 622,000) that is known for its rugged mountains, medieval villages and beautiful Adriatic coastline. The 26-year-old Kovinic has excelled at tennis, a sport she began playing at age 7. Growing up, she idolized Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic and learned to love and appreciate playing tennis on clay. Off the court, she enjoys playing piano, listening to music and hanging out with friends and family. A perusal of her Twitter and Instagram pages reflects a love of travel, too.

Over time, the right-handed hitting Kovinic has developed a solid forehand and likes to mix in the occasional drop shot to keep her opponents honest and guessing. She’s a past member of the Montenegrin Fed Cup team and represented Montenegro in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

After winning six ITF singles titles between 2009-13, Kovinic made her WTA debut in 2013 and reached the quarterfinals in Budapest. In 2015, she enjoyed a breakout season on the WTA tour, in which she became the first Montenegrin to reach a WTA final (losing at Tianjin) and finished the year ranked 58th.

In 2016, Kovinic enjoyed her second straight Top 100 season by reaching one final, at Istanbul, as well as a semifinal at Tianjin and two quarterfinals – Rio de Janeiro and Bucharest. She also attained a career-high ranking of No. 46.

However, during the next two up and down years, Kovinic struggled while grinding away on the court. Her year-end rankings in 2017 (No. 118) and 2018 (No. 182) reflected her decline. “Sometimes you doubt yourself after losing week after week in the first round,” Kovinic said Friday. “You ask yourself, ‘what is going on?’ I was practicing every single day and I cannot win. That was the first time in my career that I felt like nothing was going well. I was feeling really down, emotionally, physically, everything.”

Since then, Kovinic has worked diligently on rebuilding her confidence and boosting her ranking. Three ITF titles in 2019 enabled her to break back into the WTA Top 100. During the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season, after spending time self-reflecting at home in Montenegro and training at the Tipsarevic Academy in Belgrade, she returned with a new mindset and renewed enthusiasm. “I really wanted to get back on the tour, I wanted to do better. I had good preparations and got my confidence back,” she said.”

Last year, Kovinic’s best finish came on red clay in Rome, where she reached the round of 16 and garnered victories against Julia Goerges and Belinda Bencic. This year, she’s won six matches and lost five. Now, in reaching the Charleston title match, she’s on a four-match winning streak and it represents a new plateau. Her live ranking has improved to No. 71, too. “I realized it just takes time,” she said. “You just have to stay calm.”

Following her quarterfinal victory against Putintseva on Friday, Tennis TourTalk asked Kovinic if she embraces being her country’s top-ranked player or feels any pressure. She said without hesitation: “No, I don’t feel any pressure, to be honest. I know I’m the first one to be doing any good on the WTA tour. I hope that people back home will really appreciate what I’m doing for my country. I feel their support but I don’t feel any pressure. I’m proud to represent my country and I always will.”

After her upset victory over Kvitova, Kovinic said she received many texts and messages to congratulate her “and little bit my mind was off the tournament. But in the evening, I reset my mind, and I know that today is a new day, a new opportunity to play another great match.”

Then, after beating Putintseva – just her fourth WTA quarterfinal win in 14 tries – she admitted: “Yeah, sometimes I was surprised at myself how composed I was there. I think I’m not too emotional on the court, but sometimes I express my emotions too much. I just tried to stay calm and I think I did a good job.”

Six years ago, Kovinic enjoyed a breakthrough week in Charleston, beating Naomi Osaka in the last round of qualifying as well as Bencic and Jankovic in the main draw before losing to Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals. On Saturday against Jabeur, whom Kovinic lost to in a 2018 ITF tournament in Budapest, she hit 13 winners and converted four of nine break points. Meanwhile, Jabeur finished with five double faults and 27 unforced errors and broke Kovinic just once.

Looking ahead to Sunday, can Kovinic repeat her past success on green clay in the low country?

“Last year, when we returned back after corona,” Kovinic said, “somehow, I changed my mindset on the court, where I really believed I could beat the good players, maybe the best in our sport. This step forward in my game is showing today.

“We all here know how to play.”

Around the Volvo Car Open 

• No. 15 seed Veronika Kudermetova is the only seeded player remaining in the singles draw. The 38th-ranked Russian from Kazan, has not dropped a set in any of her five wins leading up to Sunday’s final against Danka Kovinic of Montenegro. In Saturday’s second singles semifinal, Kutermetova stopped the dream week of No. 71 Paula Badosa of Spain, 6-3, 6-3, to reach her second WTA final of year following her performance in Abu Dhabi.

Kudermetova hit five aces and 28 winners, and she converted four of six break points against Badosa, who committed 22 unforced errors and was able to break her opponent’s serve just once.

“I expected a tough match, and I think it was a really tough match,” Kudermetova said during her virtual chat with reporters following her semifinal victory. “Paula plays really good, she has a lot of weapons, she served unbelievable today. But I think today, I was more consistent than I played [against her] in Abu Dhabi. I followed my plan to just fight and be aggressive today.”

• No. 1 doubles seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands advanced to Sunday’s final with a 7-5, 6-1 semifinal win over unseeded Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Asia Muhammad of the United States. The victory improved Melichar and Schuurs win-loss record this year to 14-5.

“It was a tough start, but I think afterwards we found our game and played with commitment,” Schuurs said during an on-court interview. “We kept fighting and in the end we played some really good tennis and we’re really happy about that.”

Melichar and Schuurs will oppose unseeded Czech duo Marie Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka, who went the distance to defeat No. 4 seeds Alexa Guarachi of Chile and Desirae Krawczyk of the United States, 6-3, 0-6, 10-7, in just over an hour. Bouzkova and Hradecka are playing together for the first time.

How did Melichar and Schuurs become a top-flight team? “We’ve been working with the same coach (Torsten Peschke) for quite some time and we like each other’s games and we’re good friends,” said Melichar. She and Schuurs have won two titles together, last year at Strasbourg on clay and this year on a hard court at Doha. “So, we thought we’d give it a go and it seems to have clicked really well.”

What they’re saying

• Ashleigh Barty on Paula Badosa, who beat the World No. 1 in straight sets in Friday’s quarterfinals: “She’s a great player, a quality opponent. … Everyone here is deserving of their place. Everyone here is a professional athlete who goes about their business in the best possible way for them. There are a helluva lot of good players out here. It’s important to respect that. Of course, I respect all of my opponents. I know that every single time that I walk on the court, I have to compete at my very best to be able to match up with them.”

Danka Kovinic on having a winning attitude: “You know, as a professional athlete, once you step on the court, you need to have this feeling [that you’re going to win], otherwise you cannot win the match. Honestly, you never know how a match is going to end. I go there and try to do my best, to push even harder. If I’m tired or down, I still try to give my best on the court because as you all know, a tennis match can change in one moment.”

Sunday’s Volvo Car Open order of play