DUBAI, UAE - Just under a year after making her Top 100 debut, 27-year-old Dalila Jakupovic will play a Top 10 player for the first time, rallying from a set down to defeat Zarina Diyas at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to book a clash with reigning Wimbledon winner Angelique Kerber.
“I’m enjoying my tennis more,” she told me during the US Open. “Before, I couldn’t enjoy it as much because when you’re not having results, it’s much harder than if you’re playing well. I’m just trying to be as positive and as happy as possible.”
Playing in Dubai’s WTA main draw for the first time as a lucky loser, Jakupovic’s journey of 170 spots up the WTA rankings began at the end of 2017 when she rolled into her first WTA 125K final at the L&T Mumbai Open, falling to a young Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets.
“That was the first step that I made, that I was coming back. I was changing coaches, finding myself, seeing what I can do. I was playing very bad at this time last season, so Mumbai was the first tournament where I did really well. Since then, I’ve been doing good.”
Even without a sustained break from the game, the jovial Jakupovic still sees this as a second career, one that could not have happened without major mental improvements.
“I grew up. Everybody says that when you’re older, you’re smarter. I think it’s true. I always wanted this, but I never wanted to give myself 100% into it. I would think, ‘I’m tired now, I don’t really want to practice. Let’s do some other things.’
“Finally, I thought, ‘If you want it, you have to go for it.’ I went for it, and thank God it came true.”
The brutally honest Slovenian was a talented teenager before bad habits took hold and took her off track as her career was set to begin.
“When I was 16, I went to an academy in Munich, and I became very lazy there. When you become lazy, you need a lot of time to get back into the routines you used to do. My dad is my coach now, and at that time, he had coaching me for about a year. When a parent tries to push you at that age, you’re pushing back and don’t want to go for it.
“We tried different coaches, but it didn’t work out with everyone the way we wanted. I’m working again with my dad now, and that’s what has helped me make a big step. I grew up, and now I understand that he wants the best for me. We are both Aries, so we’re trying not to lock horns too much!”
Relieved to have finally tapped into her potential, Jakupovic now looks back on a laidback young adulthood with a tinge of regret.
“My parents were trying, maybe too much, to make sure I did everything. I attended every birthday, and never left anything early. I was trying to play tennis, but also live a normal life. That might have been the mistake, because I want to do both, but it wasn’t possible at that age. I had to choose between tennis and normal life, because I was doing 50% of both and neither well!”
Jakupovic continued to make up for lost time after the Mumbai breakthrough, making a quarterfinal at Dubai’s $100K ITF Pro Circuit tournament and kicked off 2018 with a maiden WTA semifinal at the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota.
Back-to-back grass court quarterfinals at the Nature Valley Open and Nature Valley Classic clinched her place in the Top 100.
“I think it’s a goal for everyone to break into the Top 100. I didn’t plan for it to happen before Wimbledon, and because of that I was too tired to play my best there. I was originally thinking I would play two more tournaments after Wimbledon, just that I could make the main draw at the US Open!
“I was so tired every day because the grass just hits your on your legs and everything, but I never thought I would enjoy grass courts so much.”
She also made strides in doubles, pairing Irina Khromacheva to win her second WTA doubles title in Bogota and reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. For the social Slovenian, the discipline balances her singles focus with a some much-needed normality.
“It’s a very different game, but I think it helps me. It made me realize that I can play against everyone. It helps me hit a better return, serve, and gives you better reactions at the net. You make more friends, playing with different partners on the court. It all helps to play doubles too.”
In the midst of a career renaissance, Jakupovic was taken back by the thought of concrete goals, but it didn’t take long to settle on something specific.
“I hadn’t thought about a title, but I might want to win those too, not just get a better ranking! I want to go for a title at every tournament, and get as high as possible. I won’t say a number because whatever I do will be good.”