NEW YORK — Someone, of course, will end up in the history books as the last opponent of Serena Williams’ stellar career. It could be Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro who is “honored” to be the first-round U.S. Open foe of someone she remembers watching on TV as a child.
Their match – scheduled for Arthur Ashe Stadium at 7 p.m. on Day 1 of the Grand Slam tournament that Williams has indicated will mark her farewell – is the first time the two women have shared a court.
Kovinic’s reaction when she heard about the matchup from her coach: “I was happy; I won’t lie.”
“It’s a privilege to share the court with Serena,” Kovinic said in an interview at Flushing Meadows. “I just really hope that I can show my good game. Maybe my best game.”
They’ve crossed paths in tour locker rooms over the years, but Kovinic said she never got up the nerve to request a joint practice session.
“I was like, `OK, that’s Serena and I am Danka,”‘ said the 80th-ranked Kovinic, whose best Grand Slam results were reaching the third round at the Australian Open in January and French Open in May before losing at each to a major champion (Iga Swiatek in Melbourne; Simona Halep in Paris). “I didn’t feel like I could approach her to ask.”
Other topics are, or will be, of interest over the coming two weeks, from renewed questions about whether it makes sense for women to use slightly different tennis balls than the men do at Flushing Meadows – this is the only Grand Slam tournament that does that – to Novak Djokovic’s absence due to being unvaccinated against COVID-19, to Rafael Nadal’s pursuit of a 23rd major title despite a recent recovery from a torn abdominal muscle, to Emma Raducanu’s return to the site of her out-of-nowhere run from qualifier to Slam champion a year ago in New York.
And on and on.
But for now, nothing – and no one – in tennis matters as much as Williams.
“Serena is an icon. If I wasn’t playing her, I wouldn’t have all this attention. I’m aware of that,” Kovinic said. “So it’ll be a very nice experience and, at the same moment, maybe a little bit stressful. Of course I will feel pressure. But I will try to turn it into something positive.”
What is she most eager to find out about Williams’ game?
“Everything,” Kovinic said with a chuckle. “I know she hits hard, but I don’t know how different that is from the other girls I play.”
Other players can imagine what these circumstances might feel like for Kovinic, who has a 2-4 career record at the U.S. Open – 104 fewer match wins at the place than 23-time Grand Slam champ Williams, who turns 41 on Sept. 26.
“It’s a tough one,” said Caroline Garcia, who is seeded 17th and could meet Williams if both reach the semifinals. “Danka knows that she’s going to step on court with every single person there against her. When Serena was playing in the past, the atmosphere already was electric, so I can’t imagine what it’ll be out there now.”
Garcia is coming off a title last week at Cincinnati, where Williams lost her opening match 6-4, 6-0 to Raducanu.
“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,” Raducanu said about taking on Williams. “So I just had to take it, look at the ball, not think about anything else.”
Kovinic says she generally tries to worry only about herself and her tactics, rather than what’s happening on the other side of the net.
No matter who is on the other side of the net.
Might be a tad different this time.
“It’s like: I know what to expect,” said Kovinic, the only woman to win a Grand Slam match while representing Montenegro. “And at the same time, I don’t know what to expect.”
Fans who attend the match, or watch on TV, “don’t know much about me,” Kovinic said.
So she offered a bit of a scouting report: Like Williams – well, maybe not quite like Williams, Kovinic said with a laugh – she relies on a big first serve. She can win points with her forehand. She mixes spins.
Her biggest victory probably came against Raducanu in Australia this year.
“She was really, really solid, was staying with you, counterpunching. Then, after you drop one short after a long rally, she would attack,” Raducanu said.
Kovinic has never played a match in Ashe.
Never even hit a ball in the 23,771-capacity stadium, the largest Slam stage, although she was hoping to get the chance to practice there over the weekend. She did venture inside more than a decade ago, as a teen entered in the junior competition, to sit in the upper reaches of the stands and watch Kim Clijsters play.
“It was spectacular,” she said. “From up above, the court looks so tiny. I assume it will be a completely different feeling when I step on the ground down there.”