29 Jan How Kaja Juvan became a double Olympic champion
2018 was the year where Kaja would stop playing in youth tournaments and would shift her focus solely on professional tournaments. That was what the entire season was about. There was a lot of doubt about whether she would be participating in the Olympics, since the qualifying standards for them were high. And since Kaja hadn’t played in youth tournaments, she did not meet these standards. In August we received confirmation that Kaja was accepted into the main 32 player draw.
September didn’t begin as we had hoped, as Kaja injured her back thigh muscle during quarterfinals of the tournament in Zagreb and spent half of September playing tennis from a seated position. Towards the end of the month we had our first practice sessions and 3 days prior to our departure we had the first full-on training session. The Olympic Games schedule was brutal and I was worried that we might risk a repeat of Kaja’s injury. Playing in three categories (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) seemed like an impossible mission, since all matches were to be played in 8 days. We hoped that she wouldn’t have to play mixed doubles, but we learned that all participants are required to play them.
Finally, the long anticipated departure date arrived. The national team gathered at Brnik, where I knew almost no one. We all looked the same, since the dress code is very strict and you practically don’t need your own clothes (apart from underwear). Despite the fact that the flight, including a transfer in Paris, lasted almost 14 hours, it went by quickly, but then the real waiting started at the airport. First there were insanely long lines for all national teams entering Argentina, then a check before boarding the bus, the trip to the Olympic village and another check upon getting off the bus inside the village. After a terribly long wait we finally managed to enter the Olympic village, which was stunning. They built it from scratch in a poor part of Buenos Aires and next to it they put up tents for accompanying buildings and a cafeteria. They told me they wanted to revive this part of the city and later provide apartments for the poor. The buildings were modern, tall and very close together, so that it indeed looked like a village. Around 4000 athletes and coaches were divided into rooms for 2, 3 or 4 people, which meant about 8 people per apartment with only two bathrooms. The interesting part was, that my roommates were two friendly Slovene coaches, who loved the card game tarok as much as I do.
At the meeting they explained the rules of proper behavior, posting and living in the Olympic village and at the venues. Security was the number one priority and filming and posting videos from the competition venues wasn’t allowed as well, which I found ridiculous. But the audience is still allowed to film? However, the greatest shock was when I first entered the cafeteria. Imagine what it’s like, when 4000 people want to eat at the same time. It was horrible. People stepped over each other and fought to get to the food, not to even mention a half hour wait just to get near the food. After a few days the fight for food dialed down a bit, since the schedules of matches and practice sessions got shuffled around a bit and we didn’t all eat at the same time.
The accompanying program was vast. There was always something going on in the village, where they tried to educate and entertain the participants. Around 10.000 volunteers made sure that we were ok and gave us advice on each step of the way. Our expedition had 3 of our own volunteers, “Argentinian Slovenes” that helped us with translation or provided us with things we needed. On one of our first evenings there they invited us into their center, where Slovenes regularly gather. It was built by their parents, who moved there after the 2nd world war. Now they continue to keep our language alive. They speak Slovene at home and have school in Slovene on weekends, while attending regular school during the week. There are about 200 active members and they were truly wonderful hosts. The Slovene ambassador invited us to the embassy, where we also had a nice reception. It’s great to see Slovenia all around the globe. Bus transportation was well organized and during each drive to the competition venues, we were escorted by police and armored vehicles. Unfortunately the drive to the tennis complex took a full hour, which was an additional burden after a packed schedule, because over 12 hours or more elapsed, since we left the village until we came back.
We arrived at the competition venue 5 days before the tennis tournament began, which was great, since we got to squeeze in a few practice sessions that were missing in September. The club is one of the oldest in the city and is located in Green Park. Some years ago David Nalbandian and Gabriela Sabatini played here. They were also ambassadors, who greeted us upon arrival and were guests of honor during matches. The Argentinians were crazy about them. The club has 21 clay courts and a large stadium for (my best guess) about 8000 spectators. The conditions were great, the temperatures were typical of spring and there were plenty of sparring partners, which ensured good practice sessions. The only problem was the gym, since there was only one for the entire Olympic village and not a one at the tennis club. Since we all practiced at about the same time, there were several hundred competitors inside and it was difficult to get a free spot for an uninterrupted training session, much less an available exercise machine.
The practice sessions went well and Kaja felt better with each passing day. We trained with the best youth players of the world, such as Swiatek, Wang, Carle… Excellent conditions that we unfortunately don’t have in Slovenia. Soon came the day of the draw and the grand opening of the Olympic Games. There was a major spectacle in the city, watched by 250.000 people in the streets. The immense masses, which you can see in the photos, wanted to be a part of it and it was apparent that the city lived and breathed the Olympic Games. That’s when it dawned on me, how big a deal this really is. The national team was later joined by Kaja’s mom, who took upon medical treatment for the entire team and was of great help to us during the entire tournament.
The draw for all categories, the press conference, the coaches meeting and the tennis tournament was about to commence. Kaja was seeded 4th in the singles, seeded second in women’s doubles and fifth in mixed doubles. Many people would say that the goal should be to win three medals, but there was no such hero at the end of the Games, because the schedule was too severe and the competition very tight. Kaja had some trouble jumping over the first hurdle, but she broke the ice. Kaja won the doubles match with Iga Swiatek (POL), the match the following day with Marko Miladinovič (SRB) as well as the singles. The tournament progressed nicely and Kaja’s performance on court was improving every day. On Wednesday they held the first match for medals where Kaja and Iga easily blew away Carle-Osorrio Serano on central court and the first finals match and medal was guaranteed. During matches with local players the stadium filled up nicely with about 1500 spectators. For both Kaja and I there was a new experience, because play continued after the ball touched the net (let) and caused quite a few problems. Another new rule was the use of coaching, where she could call me over to the bench once per set while changing sides, which was a great experience for both of us, because this has been in use on the WTA tour for quite some time.
On Thursday’s quarterfinal match Kaja played for the medal against a young Russian Selekhmetova (b. 2003), who thus far showed a good and gritty on court performance. Kaja lost the first set quickly 1:6 after her opponent made every shot she wanted from every position. At that time the coaching rule was very beneficial, because I could reassure her that her opponent cannot keep up that level for the duration of
the match, because she was too young and sooner or later she would start overthinking, thinking about the result, medal and winning against a top 200 player on the WTA tour. And it turned out to be the case. Kaja raised her game in the second set, while her opponent’s game dropped slightly and the score soon began to turn. She led 5:2 and her opponent defended some incredible set points and managed to level at 5:5. Kaja regained her focus and won the set 7:5. In the third set we once again witnessed some incredible tennis and a spectacular battle with plenty of fantastic shots that gave the audience a lot of bang for their buck. Experience and a slightly better mental fortitude prevailed with a final set win of 6:3 and a ticket to the semifinals. On the same day she got into the quarterfinals of the mixed doubles. On Friday there were singles and mixed doubles semifinals. Kaja played a fantastic match against Wang, 3rd in the youth rankings, and won the first set 6:0 after a mere 20 minutes. Incredible tennis. After she led 5:3 in the second set, she had some problems, but ended up winning 7:5 and earning a well-deserved ticket into her second final. In the afternoon she played for a medal with Marko. They quickly lost the first set and after trailing 2:4 in the second, they turned the set around and somehow managed to win. After an excellent start in the decisive super tie-break on the central stadium, they suddenly had two match points for the semifinal with the score 9:7. The opponents caught the line and hit the top of the net, after which the ball rolled over to our side, and Kaja missed a volley for victory. With the score 9:9, a very long point was decisive and the dreams for a third medal dissipated with the score 9:11. At that moment I knew that this was for the better, because Kaja was exhausted and wouldn’t be able to play three matches in the following two days. In the end it turned out to be true. At that moment she had already played 10 matches in 6 days. We only had the doubles final on Saturday and the grand singles final on Sunday against the Frenchwoman Burel. Jure, the official masseur for our national team, helped Kaja every day by massaging her and helping her get ready for the following day. Without him it would be impossible to keep up this pace.
Saturday was the day they played for gold, where she and Iga were favorites against the short statured Japanese players. But anything can happen in a doubles match, especially at such an important match with a NO-AD rule in front of a packed stadium with a tired Kaja and a sick Iga, who threw up for the past two days after getting food poisoning. We were in for a tough match. The girls played the worst doubles game of the tournament and the opponents were highly motivated and played aggressively. In the first set tie-break Kaja and Iga led by 5:1 and then lost 6 points in a row and the set with 6:7. The second set was tense, but they somehow managed to win 7:5, followed by the super tie-breaker for the gold medal. Before it began, they called me on court and we agreed that they would play a lot of volleys and try and win each point at the net. Out of the first 8 points they played seven volleys and the result was 6:2. They also played the following points actively and made net winners for a great celebration and the first gold medal. We could relax for a moment and enjoy the success, but for us the tournament wasn’t over yet. Despite the fact that Kaja had a lot of media obligations, she had to start the regeneration process and prepare herself for the finals on the following day.
Sunday. The stadium began to fill up, because following the women’s final was the men’s doubles final, where local players were playing. When the match began, the stadium was full to the brim. Sun, no wind and an incredible atmosphere. Perfect for the finals. Kaja started of nervously and a bit too soft and quickly fell behind with 1:4. Her opponent played aggressively and took control. I went to talk to her on court and we agreed that she would take control, raise her energy levels and wouldn’t allow her opponent to lead. The match started to turn and at 3:4 and 40:30 Burel made three consecutive double faults and that’s when I knew, the match was completely open. They began to aggressively fight for each point. After a very good and aggressive game Kaja won the first set 7:5.
Kaja started the second set much better and led 1:0, holding a one game advantage. The spectators were loud and the atmosphere incredible. Two warriors were fighting on court for the gold medal. At 4:3 something happened and the stadium turned dead silent. While Kaja was returning to the center of the court, her ankle gave away and she collapsed. I thought “not again!” because she had had problems with sprains before and it always ended poorly. After she managed to get up and limp to her bench while changing sides, Nicki (ITF’s physiotherapist) was already waiting for her. In the following moments we were
waiting to find out, whether Kaja would be able to carry on with the match. The moments dragged on, but deep inside I had the feeling that it wasn’t that bad and that she would be able to continue the match, which she did. Kaja played an incredible game after coming back from 15:40 and in the fourth attempt cashed in a break point to lead 5:3. But Burel didn’t give up and due to some mistakes by Kaja closed in on 5:4. After that Kaja played superbly and after two winners she led by 15:40. She took advantage of the second match ball to win the gold medal. Her fall to the floor and my scream of victory will remain in my memory for a long time. Now the indescribable joy could begin. Everything that was going on in our heads, all the play analyses of opponents, all the work on and off the court, everything was worth it and an entire mountain of burden rolled off my chest. A two time Olympic champion, the first in history to achieve this. What better way to finish of her career as a youth player? We would finally hear the Slovene anthem, which we didn’t hear during the doubles win. Because the players came from different countries (Poland and Slovenia) they played the Olympic anthem. The feelings upon hearing the anthem are indescribable.
The match was viewed by many Slovenes living in Argentina and half of the Slovene Olympic team. It was a special feeling to be able to celebrate with them and getting to see so many of our flags. Even the team from the Slovenes in Buenos Aires association came to cheer her on. It was only a few days later, when congratulations started raining in from everywhere, did I finally rewatch the match and realized that she did accomplish something amazing.
We stayed in Argentina for a few more days. We went sightseeing and watched some matches of other members of our national team. We cheered each other on and brought home a staggering 11 medals, which is an incredible feat for such a small country. Just to give you a comparison, our neighbors from Croatia won only 3 medals, and, despite the fact they had more competitors, they did not have a representative in tennis. The flight back went by quickly and we came home to a nice reception and our families. All in all it was a great experience and I am truly grateful and happy to be able to be a part of it. Is Tokio 2020 next?
p.s You can watch both final matches on https://www.olympicchannel.com/youth-olympic-games-2018/finals-day-8-tennis-buenos-aires-2018-yog/.