At the age of 28, Natalija Stevanovic had already broken new ground by qualifying for Wimbledon to reach her first ever Grand Slam main draw. Then the No. 225-ranked Serb went one better, edging out former finalist and No. 18 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-3 for the first Top 20 win of her career.
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Those watching ‘s-Hertogenbosch three weeks earlier might have had advance notice of what Stevanovic could do. In her first match against a Top 20 player, she held five set points against former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka before losing 7-6(5), 6-3 in the first round. Her disc proved particularly effective in disrupting Azarenka’s game.
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That experience lifted Stevanovic ahead of Wimbledon. Having finally made it through three Grand Slam qualifying rounds at her 11th attempt, Stevanovic was hungry for a statement win – and she knew which players she had a good chance against.
“We saw the draw online and Pliskova’s name came up,” Stevanovic said. “My coach [husband Nikola Stevanovic] began to say: ‘Us! U.S! U.S!’ — and my name appeared!
“There are players you want to play against because you have a game for them. There are other players who may be lower ranked but you don’t have a game for them. The plan was to use my discs to make her come down very low and take my chances on the short balls to attack.”
After a career-best win, she sat down with wtatennis.com to discuss her long journey to this point and how she transformed from a player who avoided grass to one who thrives on it.
1. Her dial is her signature image – but this wasn’t always the case.
Stevanovic’s ability with the disc was encapsulated by the way she sealed the first set against Pliskova: a casually hit backhand winner down the line that left the Czech flat-footed. She hashtags her exercises #slice on Instagram, and she claps her hands with joy as she talks about how much she loves the shot.
“I didn’t play like this in juniors,” Stevanovic said. “I used it for the first time when I started working with my coach eight years ago. I was struggling to get back on the field. It was mostly mental, but he said: “Let’s try something new. Just hit the ball inside the court to start the point.’
“Since then, every time they served to me, I chopped the disc beforehand. Then we saw that the disc is not just a chop, it can make a big difference in the way the players react to it. So we started working on it and improve it.”
2. Rafael Nadal inspired her childhood nickname
Stevanovic’s ‘Nadalija’ Instagram handle is a reference to 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal. She is keen to note that fellow Serb Novak Djokovic inspires her “maximum” these days – but as a child she was drawn to Nadal’s grit.
“[The nickname] comes from when I was very young, like 7 or 8,” she said. “At that time, everyone called me Nadalija. Then my brother-in-law created my first ever email address [it] for me and he put ‘Nadalija’.
“I think it reminds me of when I was young – a happy childhood playing tennis. So that’s why I decided to leave it like that.”
3. She had such an antipathy to grass that she skipped Wimbledon as a junior
Stevanovic (no Kostic) was the No. 5 junior in 2011. But grass was a foreign surface for a 16-year-old who had been raised on clay, and she wasn’t particularly interested in getting to know it better.
“At the time I was working with my dad and we actually decided not to play Wimbledon,” she said. “We stayed on the clay and played professional tournaments. I actually won one of those tournaments at the same time as Wimbledon – my first ITF title.
“But I think it was not so good, to feel this surface is so different.”
Seven years later, Stevanovic’s revelation came on grass in Muzaffarnagar, India, where she won her first ITF W25 title in 2018. She reflected on that week when she made it through to the Wimbledon main draw this month.
“I felt if I survived grass in India, Wimbledon could be perfect,” she said.
4. She has gone through serious health problems to make it.
Watching Stevanovic dismantle a former world No. 1, many might have wondered how it took her until 2020 to even compete in a Hologic WTA Tour main draw. Stevanovic was diagnosed with a life-threatening cyst in her liver when she was 21.
“I had a major operation and half of my stomach is cut out,” she said. “It was a long recovery for two years, then finding my feet for another two years. Then Covid hit.
“I would say it’s just part of last year and this year that I’m playing with full force and consistency.”
5. Her husband Nikola has been instrumental in her success
Invaluable to both Stevanovic’s recovery and her gradual rise since has been husband and trainer Nikola. He gave up his professional water polo career to look after Natalija for six months after her stomach surgery and never returned.
“The first tournaments we played together were meant as a holiday,” Stevanovic said. “Then I won two out of three tournaments. I was like, ‘Please, can we just try to do something good here?’
“He saw my enthusiasm, he saw my great will and he keeps pushing me higher.”
In 2020, Nikola also turned a professional milestone for Stevanovic into a personal one. In Hua Hin, the tournament where she played her first WTA main draw, he proposed. The wedding took place a year later.