Coach Craig Witcher was in the process of building the UNLV women’s tennis program, and he convinced a Southern California standout that she would be better off playing for the Rebels than her nearby college powers.
Signing Jolene Watanabe made the Rebels instant winners, and her accomplishments from 1987 to 1990 are still evident in UNLV’s record book.
“She was a big part of the UNLV women’s program and helping it get back on the map and having success,” said Witcher, the boys tennis coach at Bishop Gorman High School. “That is a steppingstone for the next group of people to come in and the next group and the next group, which eventually leads to where they are now. The fact that she’s still in those record books after 30 years, to me, is phenomenal.”
Watanabe is being mourned by Witcher and others who knew her at UNLV as well as through the Women’s Tennis Association and her coaching career. After a nearly two-year fight with cancer of the appendix, she died Saturday at the age of 50.
Watanabe was the head pro at the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
She left UNLV as the career victory leader in singles with 120 and doubles with 84. She now is third in singles and tied for fourth in doubles, but her 34 doubles victories in 1987 remains the single-season standard.
Watanabe was the Big West Conference Player of the Year as a senior, and that season she became the first UNLV women’s player to qualify for the NCAA postseason. She defeated Tennessee’s Debbie Moringiello 6-0, 6-3 before losing 6-1, 6-3 to Stanford’s Debbie Graham.
UNLV went 10-20 in 1986 in its first season after a five-year break without a program, and the following season as a freshman Watanabe helped the Rebels go 24-13. They never had a losing record with her on the team.
After her UNLV career, Watanabe played on the WTA tour for 11 years, reaching at least the second round of each of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
She upset Jennifer Capriati in the first round of the 1997 Australian Open, and reached a world singles ranking as high as No. 72 in February 1997.
Watanabe went on to coach the New York Buzz of World TeamTennis from 2003 to 2007, and was a U.S. Tennis Association certified high-performance coach.
“Jolene was a great friend and will be missed by many,” current UNLV coach Kevin Cory said in a statement. “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.”
Watanabe’s journey began in he Los Angeles area when Witcher recruited her over those nearby powers by saying being the No. 1 player at UNLV gave her the chance to play the top seeds at UCLA, Southern California and Pepperdine.
“I told her, ‘If you to go UCLA, you might be their No. 5, No. 6. So when you play USC and Pepperdine and those other good schools, you’re going to play their No. 5 or 6 player. So if you really wanted to improve your game and get to the top, you’ll be playing the best,’” Witcher said. “She liked that, and she believed in that.”
Watanabe is survived by her husband, Sylvain Elie. Funeral arrangements are pending.