Former Top 100 WTA player Jolene Watanabe passed away on June 22, 2019 after a two-year battle with cancer. The California native, who rose as high as No.72 on the singles rankings and subsequently enjoyed a rewarding coaching career, was 50 years old.
During her playing days Watanabe, who retired from the tour in 2001, reached the second round at all four Grand Slam tournaments and went as far as the third round at Roland Garros in 1995; she recorded perhaps her greatest win over Jennifer Capriati in the first round of the 1997 Australian Open. In Melbourne two years earlier, she had faced Martina Hingis in the Swiss star’s first Grand Slam main draw debut – going down to the 14-year-old in a second set tie-break.
Watanabe’s time on the circuit was grounded in a successful collegiate career with the UNLV Rebels, for whom she played from 1987 to 1990. She was the winner of the Big West Conference Player of the Year Award in 1990 and the same year became the first UNLV women’s player to qualify for the NCAA singles championship.
After leaving the tour, Watanabe went on to serve as the first female coach in World TeamTennis, overseeing the New York Buzz from 2003-07. Earning USTA high-performance qualifications, she worked at the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy before settling at the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where she became Director of Instruction and Senior Academy Coach.
“Jolene was a wonderful human being,” said Katrina Adams, a contemporary of Watanabe on the tour. “She was kind, competitive, caring and driven. She was a hard worker on and off the court, constantly trying to improve. She had an extended career playing competitively in leagues and adult tournaments, after retiring from the WTA because she just couldn’t get enough. She also instilled this inner drive and motivation to players that she worked with. Jolene was an ultimate warrior, battling life to the very end.”
“Jolene was a great friend and will be missed by many,” said current UNLV coach Kevin Cory. “She was an amazing lady who was not only a great tennis player but also a mentor to so many young players who were fortunate enough to call her coach.”
Billie Jean King said: “Jolene Watanabe spent more than 10 years on the WTA tour, put UNLV’s women’s tennis program on the map, and was the coach of the WTT New York Buzz for several years. The many players she coached were so fortunate to have her in their lives. She will always be remembered for her coaching, her leadership and her kindness.”
The WTA family extends condolences to Watanabe’s husband, Sylvain Elie and all her loved ones.