Pilot in the Spotlight: Jelena Lukic and Neli Sunjic shine before season cancellation

By Ana Clyde | April 1, 2020 2:32pm

Senior Jelena Lukic (pictured above) and freshman Neli Sunjic won WCC Doubles Team of the Week on Feb. 18.

Media Credit: Elizabeth Lyons-Best / The Beacon

Although their season ended early and abruptly, The Beacon has chosen two athletes for Pilot in the Spotlight: women’s doubles team Jelena Lukic, senior, and Neli Sunjic, freshman. 

The pair was recognized by the West Coast Conference as Women’s Doubles Team of the Week before their season was ended due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus for their win against Portland State University on Feb. 14 by an overall margin of 5-2. They went on to beat Montana State University doubles 6-4 on March 7 and currently have a 3-1 record. 

“It's always motivating when you receive recognition like that, especially knowing how hard we worked on our doubles as a team and both Neli and I as partners,” Lukic said in an email. “For the whole last semester, we practiced a lot! And I can say it definitely paid off.”

Lukic hails from Belgrade, Serbia, while Sunjic is from Split, Croatia. The international duo beat out PSU’s top doubles team at the No. 1 position after months of practice together.

Both athletes were recruited by UP coaches when they reached competitive play in their home countries. Lukic attributes her decision to come to the United States, and specifically The Bluff, to the coaches and the academics offered at UP. Sunjic decided to follow in her sister’s footsteps, who is also playing collegiate tennis in the U.S. After looking at UP, she knew it was her top choice.

“I love UP, I love my teammates, my coaches, campus, everything,” Sunjic said. “It makes me so happy all the time to be (at a) college that I like.”

While the players have enjoyed their time as Pilots so far, they admit that international play has come with its challenges.

“It's been a journey. For every international student and especially for Eastern Europeans, the period of adaptation can be a struggle,” Lukic said. “It was kind of a struggle for me, and it for sure was a cultural shock. It took me two, maybe even three semesters to completely adapt. Once I did, I started loving it at UP and Portland. Today I can say that Portland is my second home, and always will be.”

Lukic started playing at only 15 years old while Sunjic began at 6 years old, with both athletes picking up tennis after watching an older sibling take on the sport. Lukic reached WTA ranking after becoming the Seberian Junior National Champion in 2014 and helping the Serbia Junior National Team win the 2014 European Championships in France. Sunjic’s record is just as impressive, as the freshman was at one point ranked as the No. 1 junior player in Croatia and No. 11 in Europe. She is a regular member of the Croatian Junior National team.

With a lot of experience under their own belts, the two athletes have credited professional players such as Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova for being their inspirations on the court. But the Pilots also look to each other for motivation as they compete. 

“Neli is a beast at the net!” Lukic said. “She is very brave and just goes for it which I love. I never had that attitude at the net but I've always been that way from the baseline so we match great.”

“What I love most (about) Jelena is that she is always ‘in’ the match, always positive and she would never give up (on) something,” Sunjic said of her partner. 

The pair should have the chance to continue to shine next year. Although Lukic is a senior and the 2020 season was canceled, the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA gives Lukic the opportunity to play next season.

Ana Clyde is a senior sports reporter and copy editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at clyde20@up.edu.