By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic will find herself in an unfamiliar place in the tennis spotlight on the sport’s biggest stage on Monday playing the part of potential party pooper at Serena Williams’s U.S. Open retirement bash.
Since turning professional in 2010, Kovinic has yet to crack the top 40 in the world rankings and is still chasing a maiden WTA Tour title but for a few hours on Monday the 27-year-old will have the attention of the tennis world.
A first round win over Williams and Kovinic will in one match achieve the fame that has overlooked her during an unspectacular 12-year career.
Her name would forever be linked to the 23-times Grand Slam winner widely considered the greatest woman to swing a racket.
For a brief moment the 80th ranked Kovinic would go from obscurity to arguably the sport’s most famous player.
No matter what Kovinic may achieve later in life, she would find enduring fame as the answer to a sport question on pub quiz nights or Trivia Pursuit: “Who was the last person to beat Serena Williams”.
Williams, 40, signalled her intention to retire in a Vogue article in early August, saying she was “evolving away from tennis” but never confirming the U.S. Open as her final event.
The tennis world, however, is preparing a massive retirement party at Flushing Meadows and the hope is the celebrations carry on past opening day at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
Kovinic, an anonymous figure who has spent much of her career grinding away on outside courts, playing qualifiers and minor tournaments, will walk into a seething cauldron.
The match on Arthur Ashe Center Court, the world’s largest tennis stadium, will be packed with most of the nearly 25,000 cheering for the tennis icon standing across from her.
Williams will feel different emotions but the surroundings and scene will be familiar as she plays in her 21st U.S. Open, having hoisted the title six times, though not since 2014.
In contrast, Kovinic has won just two matches at Flushing Meadows, beating Serbian Aleksandra Krunic in the opening round in 2015 and Australian Lisette Faith Cabrera in 2020.
If Kovinic is experiencing stage fright she is not showing it, instead choosing to embrace the opportunity by posting on Instagram and Twitter, “WHAT A MOMENT. Looking forward to this”.
Having been world number one for 319 weeks, Williams arrives in New York ranked below 600 and unseeded.
She now plays sporadically, competing at just three events this season. In fact, since being beaten in the last 16 at Roland Garros in June 2021, she has won only one match.
While few expect Williams to end her career with a fairytale run to a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, fewer still would bet on Kovinic, the aggressive baseliner from Cetinje, to show her the exit.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, one of the few players to have recently taken them on – beating Williams last week in Cincinnati and falling to Kovinic in the second round of the Australian Open – is making no predictions.
“For me facing her (Williams) the other week, I couldn’t think about who was on the other side of the court because I knew as soon as I did, my mind would probably start going,” said British teenager Raducanu. “It’s really, really challenging.
“I’m going to know how Danka feels in that sort of situation. I remember she (Kovinic) was really, really solid, was staying with you, counter-punching. She’s happy to run, happy to rally. It’s going to be a good match-up, I think.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)