Jozef Kovalik was supposed to be a mere stat in Marin Cilic’s path to another successful run at the Chennai Open. Cilic, ranked sixth in the world, returned to the SDAT Tennis Stadium for the first time since 2013. In front of him was a 24-year-old who dressed in a t-shirt and shorts ensemble decorated with an army-style camouflage pattern. A skull printed on the front of his top, coupled with shoulder-length hair, and a nonchalant swagger gave him the feel of a maverick. Turned out, he was a giant-killer lying in wait.
Cilic knew nothing of him either, as he would later declare at the post-match press conference. He was oblivious to the fact that the Slovak pitted against him in the round-of-16 tie has been consistently rising in the rankings, now at 117. And despite his rugged looks, he would have the discipline, flair and consistency to knock out the 2014 US Open champion in his first match of the year, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5.
“I’ve seen him on television, and watched him play a lot of matches, but he has not seen me,” Kovalik says after the match. “I can play free against him because I have nothing to lose. But if he loses, it’s bad for him.”
On court, KovaliK is an entertainer in his own right. Against Cilic, his reactions to points were the theatrics that endeared him to the Chennai crowd, who were originally partisan fans for the top-seeded Croat. A roar in anger at a lost point, his punching the air at rally won, and the launching of his racquet at least 10 metres in the air – followed by a weak attempt to catch it – came across in stark contrast to Cilic’s stoic demeanour.
“Yeah he thinks he’s a rock star on some days,” says his coach Boris Borgula. “He likes rap too, but sometimes we have jazz days.”
Born in Bratislava, Slovakia, Kovalik does not belong to a family of athletes. Still, the idea of playing tennis came early enough, when he was six, as an activity in school. The recreational sport soon became more serious, and in 2008 he made the decision to turn professional. By 2015, Borgula joined him.
“He’s a friendly guy. Flamboyant, but not crazy,” says the coach. “His biggest strength is that he is disciplined and has a good serve.”
It’s a trait that has helped him rise in the ranks, from 259 at the start of 2016. Life on tour hasn’t allowed him much time to delve into his musical pursuits nonetheless.
“I’m all the time on court,” he says. He does manage to get in a few hours of Floorball – a variation of field hockey predominantly played in Europe.
The dedication to tennis has finally found a significant result. Cilic is by far his biggest scalp. In a match that lasted three hours, Kovalik matched Cilic’s groundstrokes, especially on the backhand side, to take the encounter to three sets.
Cilic admitted to have expected Kovalik’s intensity to drop in the last set. Especially since the Croat had gained momentum from winning the second. “He’s been playing very consistently these past few days. I had a feeling he might pull it off,” Borgula says.
Kovalik came into the match as a qualifier, beating Indian Prajnesh Gunneswaran to make it to the main draw, where he beat Gastao Elias of Portugal in the first round to set up the Cilic clash. With three matches under the belt, he was sharper than the Croat, who was playing his first of the year.
“I started to believe only at the last point. But now I know I can beat the top players.”