LAS VEGAS — Jolene Watanabe, who put the UNLV women’s tennis program on the map three decades ago, passed away over the weekend after a battle with cancer at the age of 50.
A native of La Puente, Watanabe, who holds the distinction of being the first Rebel to forge a successful career on the professional tennis tour, played in Las Vegas from 1987 to 1990 and left as the program’s career leader in singles victories with 120 and doubles wins with 84.
Those totals now rank third in singles and tied for fourth in doubles while her single-season record of 34 doubles wins in 1987 still stands.
Winner of the Big West Conference Player of the Year Award in 1990, Watanabe became the first UNLV women’s player to qualify for the NCAA singles championship that same year and won her first round match, 6-0, 6-3, over Tennessee’s Debbie Moringiello before falling to Stanford’s Debbie Graham, 6-1, 6-3.
Watanabe retired in 2001 after an 11-year career on the WTA circuit. Having reached at least the second round in all four Grand Slam events, her tournament championships came throughout the world from Italy to Mexico.
Watanabe made national news in 1997 when she upset Jennifer Capriati in the first round of the Australian Open. She reached as high as No. 72 in the singles rankings (February 1997), 81 in the season-ending WTA Tour rankings (May 1996) and 142 in doubles (April 1996).
“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 is survived by her husband, Sylvain Elie. Services are pending.