By: Andrew Eccles
As a former World No. 1 prepares a surprise appearance – a showdown with Simona Halep in the final of Indian Wells – tennis fans at home will likely be divided in how they feel about Jelena Jankovic. The Serb stands out from the crowd of WTA players thanks to a boisterous identity on (and off) the court; good humored, sharp witted, and prone to outbursts of anger followed by wry smiles, Jankovic is a peculiarly familiar enigma.
Early in her career, Jankovic expressed understandable doubts about enduring the rigors of the tour, asking the question, “why am I not a regular girl who lives a normal life?”
Normality doesn’t fit the Serb, though – from her personality right through to how she plays the game.
Her counter-punching game has held up well during an era of power players – from the early days of the Williams sisters, Kim Clijsters, and Lindsay Davenport – to modern equivalents like Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova. She can be overpowered, but she can also frustrate and retrieve, elongating points and wearing her opponents out.
Her signature defense masks an above-average aggression – the backhand down the line is renowned in the sport, and she sometimes hits it so casually, it’s as if she merely employs it out of frustration – or even boredom – with a particular rally. Jankovic will make trips forward to the net to shorten points, too, when the situation allows. Her volleys do not hold up under too much interrogation from an opponent, but are perfectly workable for clean finishing shots.
Timing has been everything in Jankovic’s career, from her rise to No. 1 to the way she hits the ball. 2008 was a year of disorder on the WTA Tour – Justine Henin suddenly retired, the Williamses were struggling to retain their once-bicameral domination, Sharapova was injured, and Clijsters was gone – at the top of the game, a second wave was taking advantage. Jankovic was the one who could most naturally exposed – and expel – inconsistency, building her ranking off the weaknesses of the remaining field.
She would finish that season at the top of the rankings, but spent an ill-fated off-season attempting to add muscle to her body. In creating a more powerful game, she hoped to gain the strength critics insisted she needed to go one better than her US Open final finish. This proved to be a disastrous mistake; her timing on the ball thrown into disarray by her new strength, prompting a long recession away from the game’s elite.
If there’s one quality that can be attributed to Jankovic, though, it is tenacity. Every time it looks as though she has nothing left to give, she finds a way to force her name back on the marquee. Before reaching the final of Indian Wells, she had barely won a match in 2015, but here she is ready to compete for the title.
It is her fierce stubbornness that makes her divisive – she is not unwilling to wield her tongue as a weapon, frustrating her opponents in every aspect of competition, but still shaking hands with a sweet smile. Sometimes this works for her; other times, not so much.
“How long do I have to wait?” she famously shouted across the net. Her target: an extremely flat-looking Serena Williams during the final of Charleston in 2013. Williams had just dropped the first set, and was complaining that the Serb was serving too quickly.
“Until I’m ready,” Williams responded, and a short argument ensued. Engaging with Williams proved another costly unforced error; the exchange awoke the American, who dominated the rest of the match to take the title, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.
Jankovic knows she can get in people’s heads, but doesn’t always know when is best to do so. She is a woman who speaks her mind; holding her tongue is not a part of her repertoire. Where she once questioned her existence on the Tour, she now embraces the idea of not being the ‘regular girl with the normal life,’ developing her brand around that difference. She recently declared, “I bring the light…and the joy” – given her combination of great play and high drama, few would argue with her there.
This sense of self is what has endeared fans to Jankovic, and what keeps the tennis world tuning in match after match. Whether her fury is directed at brother Marko in the coaching box, at the umpire, or even at herself, the knowing smile is never too far behind. Jankovic seems aware – more than it might appear – that she is part of this this athletic entertainment industry. She has cast herself as the “Empress” of the WTA through accomplished amateur dramatics, perfectly happy to irk in the name a good show.
Importantly, she has earned the right to entertain through a career of brilliance – had her game been more underwhelming, few would have time for the bonus material.
At the age of 30, Jankovic still seems to have the energy to go on with the show. We love her for her perfectly timed groundstrokes and flashes of backhand brilliance, for her determination to track down every ball, and for her refusal to show even the greatest of opponents any sign of fearful respect.
As competitors go, Jankovic’s mental prowess and sense of humor sets her apart in the face of adversity. She was a worthy No. 1 in an era of uncertainty, and remains a figure who should never go underestimated. When the glitter eventually falls, marking her exit from the sport, we will not only lose a show-woman, but also a great talent.
Long may she reign.