JJ, the Chicken & the Egg

by: Peter Bodo | August 18, 2011

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by Bobby Chintapalli

MASON, Ohio – Jelena Jankovic isn’t the reason I’m here, and yet I’ve seen more of her this week than anyone else. That’s the thing about her – whether she’s winning or losing, winning you over or whining again, you can’t look away. So I didn’t. I watched and watched some more, on court and off. And while I was at it, I took a few notes on the former No. 1, who plays Grand Slam winner Francesca Schiavone at the Western & Southern Open tonight.

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Jelena Jankovic likes to ask questions, even when she’s really there to answer them. In her post-match press conference after her match against Zheng Jie yesterday, the tennis player asked a handful of us the rules of tennis.

Explaining how she went on to win the match after losing the first set, Jankovic said she was up 4-1 and lost her focus. She also felt she got a few bad calls in the first set. “I hit an ace and then some lines. And I don’t know what the rule is when the girl calls the ball out during the point and then she continues to play.” (The “girl” being her opponent, who Jankovic also had glowing words for, calling her among other things, “one of the greatest fighters out there.”)

Then Jankovic had some questions for us: “I don’t know if that’s allowed or not? Is that allowed? What are the rules?”

The questions weren’t rhetorical. She said that a few times Zheng called a ball out but, when the umpire didn’t say anything, continued playing. Jankovic though perhaps stopped or slowed down and, as a result, went on to lose the point. Jankovic asked the umpire about this, she said, and the umpire said it’s up to her (the umpire), not her opponent.

Jankovic likes to talk, sure, but it’s more than that – she likes to converse. In press it’s not unusual for her to ask, perhaps to assess the level of detail with which to reply, whether you saw the match. (She asked me that yesterday when I asked if she thought Zheng may have gotten bad calls too. For the record I watched the last two sets and, as I told her, I did think Zheng got a bad call later on.) 

In many ways Jankovic is an interviewer’s delight. She can be open and insightful and, yes, verbose, all without prodding. A Q&A I did with her in Charleston was likely the easiest I’ve ever done; it had less to do with my preparation than my subject. Even when she says she won’t give you an answer, she rarely sounds cold or dismissive the way, say, Maria Sharapova sometimes can when she doesn’t like a question or simply isn’t in the mood. After her semifinal loss to Caroline Wozniacki in Charleston, I asked Jankovic about her strategy for the match. “Why would I say it now?” she asked. “It doesn’t make sense. You guys write everything in the paper. So it’s like I tell you, like the whole world knows.” Then she laughed. It’s not that Sharapova doesn’t laugh. It’s that Sharapova laughs when she wants to, whereas Jankovic seems to laugh with you.

And Jankovic is more illuminating than, say, Caroline Wozniacki. In Wozniacki’s defense she isn’t, with press at least, the person she was before this year. In the past her answers were more forthcoming and fun, but in the past questions were about what she has (wins, game, ranking) more than the one thing she doesn’t (a Grand Slam title – have you heard?!).

I asked former No. 1 Jankovic if she empathizes with current No. 1 Wozniacki, who’s been under a lot of pressure this year and who was upset by American Christina McHale yesterday. “It’s tough to say,” she said, before saying 300 words on the matter. She said Wozniacki’s young and has achieved so much already, has time to achieve even more. She said perhaps she hasn’t gotten enough matches and is, as a result, lacking rhythm and confidence. She said in the end she’s playing for herself, no one else. She eventually wrapped up with this: “It’s not like she’s the only one or I’m the only one. That’s part of the sport. It’s just a matter of how you get back…”

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What of Jankovic on court? Will she get back? The woman who looked like she’d be in the Top 10 forever now finds herself at No. 14, not shabby but not No. 1. (By the time she dropped out of the Top 10, shortly after the French Open, Jankovic had the longest continuous stay of anyone there at the time; she entered it in early 2007.)  

Watching her against Zheng yesterday and against Iveta Benesova before that, you could see her groundstrokes aren’t what they were. Even when she’s hitting that signature backhand down the line, she’s more off balance and getting less depth. Zheng looked more offensive, sometimes in comparison to Jankovic and simply because she can be, especially for a player who is, to use the fashionable word, diminutive. 

Defensively too Jankovic isn’t the player she was in her glory days in 2008 (and not only because new and possibly improved versions like Wozniacki make her abilities seem more normal). She said as much after her match yesterday: “When I was No. 1, I was maybe moving better than I am now. But I think I’m starting to move good again, so I don’t want to put myself down and say that I’m not moving well.”

Jankovic thinks her serve is better than when she was No. 1, and the numbers suggest she’s right. At Wimbledon she was on the serve speed list, with a 111 mph serve. Here she served six aces in her match against Benesova, including two in the last game.

Jankovic also said, “I’m not too crazy about practicing.” That was always true, and you could see it Saturday night. It was late, past 8:00 and Jankovic was practicing on Grandstand, where Wozniacki lost to McHale yesterday and where just outside are John Deere tractors, dumpsters and other inanimate indications that the tournament’s fun and games take work. Inside a very animate Jankovic gesticulated, talked and sometimes practiced. She returned serves, wide and down the middle, and hit groundstrokes, crosscourt then down the line. The crosscourts looked fine, but her down the line shots lacked their usual accuracy and pop that night. Several times she stopped and bent over, as if exhausted. Other times she made eye contact with several of the 15 or so people watching, perhaps to confirm to them that she was, in fact, exhausted. Once or twice she turned to me after a grueling drill with an expression that seemed to say, “Why are they doing this to me?”

The biggest challenge for Jankovic in this phase of her career isn’t the depth of her backhands but something else, and she knows it: “I think overall, you know, it has as well to do with the confidence and motivation and a lot of other things, not just the tennis game,” she said yesterday. 

Is Jankovic losing because she’s lost?

And does that have something to do with why she’s smiling less? In contrast with the bright orange dress Jankovic wore (with a matching hair thingy and nary a hair out of place), she sometimes looked unhappy against Zheng even when she was leading. There was the occasional hand on hip, the walking to her chair with the seriousness of one doing calculus problems in her head. Even up 3-0 in the third set, she and her body language were negative enough make one fan wonder aloud, “Cranky, aren’t you?” When she lost her first match point, she wasn’t happy with her mom, who yelled, “Come on, JJ, come on!” Perhaps it broke Jankovic out of some reverie, perhaps she warned her not to cheer. Because she sighed, lifted her head to the sky and shot her mom a look, causing her mom to cover her mouth, smile a guilty smile… and stay mum. Jankovic lost the next point too, looked at her mom accusingly and loudly said something that sounded like, “I told you!”

It can’t be easy to be happy out there all the time or stay motivated after all these years. In her post-match presser after the Benesova match, she acknowledged that: “There were times when… it was tough hitting balls every day and doing the same things over and over again. I think in any profession if you just keep – like, I guess, you guys – if you’re just writing the same articles and doing the same thing every day.” 

She’s trying though: “But, you know, I found ways to kind of motivate myself and kind of find fun routines, different exercises and different things that push me to work on my game and get better.”

Hopefully that will lead to more of the fun Jankovic who was also on display at times in her match against Zheng. Up 5-2 in the second set she said something loudly in Serbian. It was more a monologue than a word or two. “Say again?” said one man with a Midwestern accent. Fans laughed. Jankovic turned to spot the man and smiled for long enough that she had to put her hand up to tell Zheng to wait to serve.

So she does she still enjoy all this? I asked her that after she beat Benesova 6-0, 6-3. Did you have fun today, I asked. “Yeah, I did have fun today,” she said, adding something a little important. “And especially it’s fun when you win. It’s never fun when you lose. Even when you played well.” 

But what came first? The chicken or the egg? The smiling less or the losing more? And what’s next? Jankovic hopes her best days are ahead of her, but are they? It’s not clear from her form or her words. Only time will tell – and it’s Jelena Jankovic, so we’ll be watching.

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