PLAINFIELD – It started when she was five years old.
When Jessica Kovalcik, currently a sophomore at Plainfield North, was five, her father, Dusan, took her along while he played tennis.
Soon, she was picking up a racket and hitting the ball herself. And she found that she liked it.
Her father continued to nurture her interest, and at age 8 she began to get more competitive and began training at Five Star Tennis Center in Plainfield.
When her freshman year began at Plainfield North, coach Raghav Saini was in his second year as the Tigers’ coach. He didn’t know who Kovalcik was.
He quickly learned as Kovalcik dominated from the start and took third place in the state in Class 2A as a freshman.
“I was a new coach, only in my second year,” Saini said. “And here comes Jessica to tryouts as a freshman. I had no idea how good she was.
“There are a lot of coaches that have been coaching for 20 years or more that haven’t had a player like her, and I got her in my second year. She has definitely helped the program. She brings a pace to the game that the other girls haven’t seen, and playing against her makes them better.”
Not content with third place, Kovalcik has a singular goal in mind this season.
Win a state championship.
And she is well on her way, sporting a 16-0 record entering this week’s Southwest Prairie Conference Tournament.
“My goal this year is to win the whole thing [state title],” Kovalcik said. “I have been going all over the country playing in tournaments over the summer put on by the USTA [United States Tennis Association]. I won a few matches, and I want to go back and play in them again.
“I really like playing singles instead of doubles. I like knowing that it’s all on me.”
Although she is only a sophomore, Kovalcik admits that college and perhaps the pro ranks already are on her mind. Until then, however, she enjoys being a part of the Tigers, although she still works out at Five Star when she has time during the season.
“I like being a part of the team,” Kovalcik said. “I try to give the other girls tips if they ask. It’s a lot more relaxed than the tournaments over the summer.
“Some of the girls on the team go to Five Star also, so it’s been kind of nice to help build up the program here.”
Saini is happy to have Kovalcik, as well as fellow sophomore and Five Star product Santoshi Yadagiri, who also qualified for state last season as a freshman.
“Both Jessica and Santoshi made it to state last year as freshmen,” Saini said. “It’s nice for our team to have that 1-2 punch. They have actually played against each other, on the record, twice this year. Getting them into the finals against each other in a tournament earns us more points.
“We have also used Jessica a few times in a doubles pairing in order to get other girls some singles matches. I think she really likes being a part of the team and doing all the stuff with the team. We fully support the girls training at Five Star, and Five Star fully supports the girls. Jessica is having a lot of fun with these girls and tennis doesn’t seem so much like a job. I think it gets her mind in the right place, and she gets a lot of support from the girls on the team.”
Kovalcik isn’t sure what the future holds for her yet, but she does have some ideas on what she wants it to look like.
“Since I am only a sophomore, I don’t know if colleges can recruit me yet, so I haven’t talked to any,” she said. “I would love to go play at a Division I college, maybe out in California, UCLA or something like that.
“I haven’t really been paying attention to what the other girls in the state are doing or what their records are. Coach Siani does that. I just keep more concerned with my own game and trying to move forward all the time. I think the strength of my game is that I play smart. I am more of a baseline player, so I like to hit the balls back and wear the other person out. I was proud of myself for getting third last year. It was a whole new thing for me, being at the state tournament. I think I have a good shot at getting back, and hopefully I can win the title this year.”