Born in Bosnia, Penn women’s tennis coach Sanela Kunovac's athletic journey began when she was 3 years old. After getting lost at a beach and sending her parents into a frenzy, she was finally found at the tennis courts, mesmerized by the ball going back and forth.
This was a sign of what was to come. A few years later, Kunovac's parents signed her up for a summer tennis camp, and she immediately fell in love with the sport. With a family that was focused on academics, however, she was tasked by her parents to get all A’s before they would sign her up for camp again the following year. For a young Kunovac, there was nothing she wouldn’t do for tennis, and she easily accomplished this feat. At this point, her parents came to the realization that there would be no getting her away from the tennis courts.
As a 2004 graduate, Kunovac often reminisces about the forks in the road that led her back to her alma mater, saying, “Sometimes the question is, do you want to get what you want, or do you want to get what you need, even when you think you want something else?”
At the age of 9, war forced Kunovac out of her home of Bosnia, and she - along with other Bosnian tennis players - was sent to Croatia. After spending a few years in Croatia, she moved to Italy and finally ended up at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. at the age of 13. Although these journeys were challenging and tested her character, they strengthened her love for the sport of tennis.
“With different countries, different cultures, different languages, and different statuses, the one thing that didn’t change was this love for the game, so no matter where we were, I always found home around the tennis courts," Kunovac said.
Her IMG company included notable players such as former No. 1 in the world, Maria Sharapova, as well as other former top-10 players, like Jelena Jankovic and Daniela Hantuchova. Clearly, the tennis community at IMG was a strong one.
Numerous top programs heavily recruited her, but Kunovac stood her ground - as the IMG culture led to Kunovac’s firm stance that she was going to skip college and immediately turn pro.
“I used to associate college with failure. Sometimes when I was losing a match, people would come to me and they would say, oh, Sanela, don’t worry, at least you’re smart, so you can go to college,” Kunovac said.
Yet, despite her opposition, her parents strongly encouraged her to apply to college, as she was one of the top students at her school. She decided that if she had to attend college, it would have to be at a top university. One of these top universities that drew her attention was Penn.
In order to further research this option, Kunovac made a call to Penn about financial aid. Initially, she did not disclose her name, but after the coach found out who he was talking to, he booked a flight and was at her house the next day trying to recruit her. Everyone wanted her on their team.
After making an official visit, Kunovac and her parents came to a deal: she would apply to Penn - and only Penn - and if she got in, she would go. Otherwise, she would join the pro tour.
“Needless to say, I was hoping not to get in,” Kunovac said.
As fate would have it, she was accepted and joined the Quakers the next fall. Even at this point, Kunovac remained focused on going pro and was planning on only spending one year wearing the Red and Blue.
During that 2001 season, Kunovac played No.1 seed for singles and doubles for the Quakers, and, after leading the team to their first-ever Ivy League title, she helped the team upset nationally-ranked Pepperdine in the NCAA tournament. She also became the first player to win both Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year. She had one of the best freshmen seasons anyone could hope for, both on and off the court.
“I really loved the fact that here, unlike in high school, you can go listen to a class, and then you can talk to your teammate about it, you can talk to your roommate about it, you can go to the cafeteria and sit at a random table and people will carry a conversation and make you think,” Kunovac said.
Ultimately, it was her classmates, teammates, and coaches that led Kunovac to decide to stay at Penn for all four years. She became the first three-time captain in Penn women’s tennis history and was a two-time All-Ivy team selection in both singles and doubles.
After completing her tennis career at Penn — for the time being — Kunovac planned to work for the Women’s Tennis Association but found herself back at IMG Academy as a math teacher.
“I felt like such a connection to them and I felt like I owed them sort of," Kunovac said. "I would have done it for free.”
She went on to teach economics and psychology, and even became the director of college counseling. It was through these experiences that she realized she had a passion for teaching and that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, preferably on a collegiate level.
Kunovac then enrolled in a five-year program at the University of Arizona to get a masters in International Relations and Comparative Politics. After finishing her master’s thesis a semester early in her second year at Arizona, Kunovac was encouraged by her academic advisor to go take some courses at Penn, and that’s exactly what she did.
On-campus, she found her way back to Penn women’s tennis as a team volunteer. It was at this time that the current coach retired, leaving a vacancy that many players and staff members hoped Kunovac would be able to fill. After some persuasion by players and peers, despite needing to go back to Arizona to finish her master’s degree, she sent in an application, if for nothing but the experience. After getting offered the position, she decided to take a leave of absence from her master’s degree while she spent some time at Penn to help get the team back on track.
“[Getting the team back on track and leaving] was, I thought, two years out, and now 11 years in I love it," Kunovac said. "I love it as an athlete. I just love tennis. It’s funny for me to think that I almost didn’t event interview or think about it because this feels so natural.”
In 2008, her first year as head coach, Penn did not even have enough players to field a full roster, so Kunovac placed a major emphasis on recruiting and ensuring that incoming players grasped the winning culture of Penn women's tennis. Because tennis generally only had two recruits per year, she was faced with a difficult task.
“The question is, what type of team are they coming into. So then, building from the bottom up, and making sure that we understand who we are, what we stand for, how we treat one another, what are our values, and what is at our core," Kunovac said.
Kunovac credits this fundamental culture shift as the contributing factor for many of her players earning Ivy League awards over her tenure.
At the end of the day, coach Kunovac ended up where she needed to: coaching tennis and giving back through the sport that she loves. Fortunately for the Quakers, that brought a new strength to Penn women’s tennis program, one that surely has a bright future.
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