Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Rebecca (Jensen) DiIanni

Twelve-year-old Rebecca (Jensen) DiIanni came to Kansas for a tennis camp in 1980, unaware that she would later train to become an NCAA champion on the courts she was playing on. By the end of camp, DiIanni had made up her mind. When it came time for her collegiate tennis career to begin, she was going to be a Jayhawk. No questions asked.

“My mom knew Scott Perelman who, a long time ago, was the men’s head coach,” said DiIanni. “So he put together a bunch of kids from Michigan and we all went to Kansas for tennis camp. I think I always knew, since I was 12 years old, that’s where I was going to go.”

DiIanni grew up in Ludington, Mich., a town on the shore of Lake Michigan. She had four siblings who all played tennis, making the Jensens more than just a family, they were a team.

DiIanni’s two older brothers, Luke and Murphy Jensen, were both accomplished players and went on to win the 1993 French Open title as doubles partners. Her twin sister, Rachel, turned pro out of high school, while DiIanni herself was a National Champion. According to a Sports Illustrated article in 1993, on the way to the hospital to meet the newborn twins, Luke and Murphy were planning which would be their future doubles partner.

“It’s what I knew,” said DiIanni, on being raised in a tennis-oriented family. “I didn’t know that anyone didn’t do that. It’s just what we did. It’s what we did as a family. If one brother did one thing and my twin did that, and my other brother did that, we were all on the same thing. It was fun and it was just a family thing we did together.”

While both brothers headed to play for the University of Southern California, DiIanni packed her bags and traveled to Lawrence, Kan., her home for the next three seasons.

When DiIanni arrived on campus, the women’s tennis program was still a work in progress. In her first season, DiIanni said few people came to see the Jayhawks play at the Alvamar tennis courts.

“We started with people being like, ‘Oh, we don’t need to show up for them’,” said DiIanni.

The Jayhawks saw the stands fill up as the team showed promise for a winning season in the Big Eight. But while the team got more attention, there was one group of fans that had been there from the beginning: fellow Jayhawk student-athletes.

“Everyone was there for each other,” said DiIanni. “Even basketball players like Greg Ostertag would come and watch us. I just don’t know if they do that at other schools. Football players would come and that’s what I liked about it. It’s a huge school, but a small community.”

With the wins came confidence for the upstart Kansas tennis program. DiIanni recalls one instance of when the KU squad exhibited too much confidence against an opponent on the road. The team only took four players, because in order to win, the team only needed four wins.

“We only took four people because they didn’t want to take people out of exams,” said DiIanni. “Well, we couldn’t lose a match. Somebody went three sets, and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re about to lose.’ We got a little too cocky for our shoes at one point. We were like, ‘Oh, we need to bring everybody? That’s ridiculous!’ But she went and won 7-6 in the third and I don’t think we ever made that mistake again.”

As the team made strides, so did DiIanni individually. In her first year, DiIanni helped the Jayhawks to a Big Eight Championship, while being dubbed the ITA Central Regional Newcomer of the Year and All-Big Eight with a 36-13 singles record.

In 1993, DiIanni was the first Kansas tennis player to earn All-America status in both singles and doubles in one season. She also participated in singles and doubles at the NCAA Tournament all three years.

In her final season as a Jayhawk, DiIanni claimed the top prize at the 1994 NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga. DiIanni and her doubles partner, Nora Koves, made it to the doubles final and claimed victory over Marie-Laure Boungnol and Pascale Piquemal of Ole Miss, 6-4, 7-5. DiIanni and Koves were the first Kansas tennis players to win a National Championship.

After winning the NCAA title, DiIanni and Koves were given a wild-card draw to the U.S. Open, where the tandem advanced to the second round. Twenty years later, DiIanni and Koves remain the lone victors of a NCAA tennis championship for the Jayhawks.

While DiIanni enjoyed winning her title, she appreciated the togetherness her team had with the men’s tennis team even more.

“I loved winning that title,” said DiIanni. “But what I think was the coolest thing was in the Big Eight, the men and the women played at the same time and I think we both won in the same year. I thought that was pretty cool.”

DiIanni’s Kansas family extended outside of the women’s team to her male counterparts, an integral part of the Kansas tennis program and its history. The teams traveled together, practiced on the same courts and formed a support system for one another.

“The men’s and the women’s team were so ‘together’,” said DiIanni. “I liked that team aspect because the men’s and women’s teams were always doing things together. When they were doing well, we were successful. When it came down to me winning that individual title with my partner, the whole team had already left, except my coach.  To win the Big Eight with the men there, I thought that was really cool.” 

Following her NCAA victory, DiIanni decided to turn pro and bypass her final year of eligibility, a choice she had anticipated.

“(My twin sister) turned pro out of high school and my two older brothers, in 1993, won the French Open,” said DiIanni. “So, in my junior year in 1994, in my mind, I was going to turn pro anyway. I just felt like that’s where my family was and where everyone else was, so I turned pro and played on the tour for seven years. I got to the quarterfinals in mixed doubles at Wimbledon and was ranked No. 86 in the world in doubles. Nothing amazing, but I got to play the Grand Slams and travel around the world.”

The professional ranks were a different experience for DiIanni who had spent the last three seasons with the support of not only her team, but her fellow student-athletes. DiIanni had spent the last three seasons playing for more than just herself. The transition from a team competition to individual was tough at first.

“It was hard,” said DiIanni.  “It was different. It wasn’t like it was lonely; it was just different because it was an adjustment. It was good because I knew it was what I wanted to do. But my family was also like a team. Even though it was a different type of element, my family is a team to me. I miss the energy of the KU team on the sidelines. Then in the pros you’re playing in front of people who don’t know who you are.”

The concept of a team had always been the forefront for DiIanni throughout her tennis career. Starting with her immediate family and then her Jayhawk family, DiIanni found and relished in a togetherness in the midst of the individuality of tennis.

“I just loved the team,” said DiIanni of her Kansas team. “Because tennis is so individual, it’s a selfish sport, it has to be about you. In juniors and in the pros, you’re pretty much on your own and doing your own thing whereas, when I played at KU, it was opposite. It wasn’t about you. It was about, ‘How can I help my teammates to be better?’ Our goal was to win the Big Eight, so how can we get better and work together and continue the pride of being a Jayhawk, which I thought was really cool. I like the unity of KU; we were always there for each other.”

DiIanni has maintained contact with her friends from her days playing at Kansas. She saw Koves this past holiday season and always sees familiar faces at tennis events such as the U.S. Open. She also recently crashed a men’s tennis alumni dinner.

Following her professional career, DiIanni settled down in Atlanta, Ga., where she teaches tennis. DiIanni now has a new team in her young daughters, Jensen (4) and Joanna (2), who both are learning tennis from their mother.

“My little ones are into it,” said DiIanni.  “So I just keep on doing what I’ve been doing. I was in tennis, they’re in tennis, and then they’ll go to KU.”

DiIanni plans on her eldest daughter Jensen to follow in her mother’s footsteps and play tennis for Kansas.

“She’s all about KU,” said DiIanni.  “She’s already told me I need to get her a cheerleading outfit. She doesn’t know that she’s going there yet, but she will.”

When DiIanni’s daughter does realize it, she’ll have some big shoes to fill in Kansas tennis history. But, she’ll also have a chance to join a new team, like her mother did. A team that sticks with you for years and spans the world, because being a Jayhawk is more than the sport you play – it’s the people and history that you share it with.

Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.