Penn State sophomore utilizing mindset of Serbian greats

Canadian's encounter with Djokovic meant everything

One tennis player prepares a backhanded serve as a tennis ball comes towards him on the left.
Penn State tennis player Stefan Simeunovic channeling his inner Djokovic as he winds up a backhand swing (Photo: Alex Mandarino) 

TAMPA, Fla. — Penn State tennis player Stefan Simeunovic has built his game around his Serbian influences, starting with Novak Djokovic. 

During a practice in the summer of 2023, the 19-year-old Canadian had a memorable encounter with the No. 1-ranked player after being invited to attend the latter’s training academy. He did not squander the opportunity. 

The two went head-to-head in a surprise matchup, and the younger competitor reflects on his time with the tennis legend. 

“We played a couple points, we didn’t play a full match but I won the last point so that’s all that matters”, said Simeunovic after his 6-2, 6-0 victory over Bruno Oliveira at the University of South Florida Wednesday afternoon. 

“That was probably the best experience of my life. I blacked out a little bit. It was amazing, he was just a cool guy and he treated me like anyone else.”

Simeunovic is currently amid his second season with the Nittany Lions, where he has recently become the best singles player on the team.

Growing up in a Serbian-Canadian household, the Niagara Falls native idolized Djokovic, who had captured four Grand Slams on the ATP by the time the former had begun playing tennis at the age of eight. 

Simeunovic celebrates after a successful point in his singles match against Bruno Oliveira Wednesday afternoon (Photo: Alex Mandarino)

It didn’t take long for Simeunovic to follow his lead.  

“Coming from a Serbian background, that’s kind of the reason I started playing. He was the best when I was growing up, that’s what got me into tennis and I’ve just been a fan ever since. 

“He’s one of the best ever, so it’s tough not to be a fan.”

The Joker is not the only Serbian legend to influence Simeunovic. He is a close follower of the National Basketball League and has an admiration for reigning NBA champion Nikola Jokic. 

Stefan’s mother Sandra, who drove from the family’s vacation home in Fort Lauderdale to attend both his singles and doubles match on Wednesday afternoon, suggests that the two are comparable players due to their demeanour on their respective courts.

“They are smart players, they use their brain a lot,” said mom, one of three Penn State fans at the complex. “They oversee the court, that’s something that’s very common for Serbian basketball players.”

Sandra is a proud supporter of her son, and enjoys cheering him on throughout the ebbs and flows of each match.

“I try to come in the winter as much as I can.”

Despite the role models that Simeunovic has constructed his game around, his parents give him the biggest boost when the moment counts. With his mother and father in the stands, he went on to eek out Penn State’s only singles victory on Wednesday.

By the end of the day, all fans at the University of South Florida tennis complex could recite the words of encouragement Stefan’s biggest supporters were bellowing.

Idemo,” says Sandra. “It means Let’s Go.”

And go Simeunovic did. 

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Posted: Mar 7 2024 6:33 pm
Filed under: Sports Tennis