Australian Open: Ivanovic d. Jankovic

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As Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic prepared to play their third-round match at the Australian Open—their first Grand Slam clash since they met in the semifinals of the 2008 French Open—I found myself wondering if either or both young ladies have looked back to that encounter and, if so, how they felt about the intervening years.

At the time, the two ladies, along with countryman Novak Djokovic, were the toast of Paris (Djokovic had won the first Grand Slam title of his career just months earlier, in Melbourne). It was the Serbian spring. Enthusiastic pundits wondered aloud whether the three of them would end up dominating tennis for a decade or longer to come.

Well, Djokovic has fulfilled all his promise and more (five Grand Slam titles in nine finals). Ivanovic and Jankovic have also had terrific careers: Each has been No. 1, and a Grand Slam finalist—and in Ivanovic’s case, a winner (at that selfsame 2008 Roland Garros).

Yet each has known her share of disappointments as well. Wasn’t this supposed to be a final, not a third-round meeting between these two? Someone who’d fallen asleep in 2009 and only just awakened yesterday might have been be puzzled to find them seeded Nos. 13 (Ivanovic) and 22 (Jankovic).

Well, I don’t know if either was thinking along those lines, but I found the ensuing match, which Ivanovic won 7-5, 6-3, emblematic of their larger ups and downs. There was something ragged and unpredictable about it—a struggle of half-formed intentions colliding like billiard balls, coming to rest God knows where. Perhaps these two, with their history as countrywomen and rivals, would be better off not playing each other all, but it doesn’t work that way in tennis. So they went out and played a match that seemed weirdly like they were keeping their distance from each other. I wish I could put it better, but I cannot.

At times, either women played brilliant tennis. Some of the rallies were breathtaking, with Jankovic’s aggressive retrieves matching Ivanovic’s precise, laser-like shots. They played to each other’s strengths instead of weakness for much of the early going, with Ivanovic stubbornly trying to break down Jankovic’s excellent backhand, and Jankovic showing no fear of Ivanovic’s superior forehand.

Both women came into the match in need of general rehabilitation, but Jankovic was still spinning her wheels while Ivanovic was in the midst of one of her periodic spurts of crisp, efficient play. Looking fragile, Jankovic was the first one to crack, and it didn’t take very long. She fell behind 15-40 in the second game, but quickly dispatched the game points. In what has become a depressingly familiar pattern, though, she then lost the next two points. There was no stopping the massive forehand service return winner Ivanovic tagged at deuce, but Jankovic’s inside-out forehand error that surrendered the break was an avoidable mistake.

Ivanovic had a head of steam, and was consistently getting the better of the high-quality rallies, all the while tempting fate in the form of that sweet Jankovic down-the-line backhand. When Ivanovic broke again for 5-2, it seemed that a dispirited Jankovic might simply give up, to await the better days that everyone assures her are coming.

But instead, Jankovic caught fire. She began to play like a demon, and imposed her vision on Ivanovic's game. A master of defense, she put up a wall that Ivanovic couldn’t tear down, and the next thing you know it was 5-all, with Jankovic to serve.

Of course, Ivanovic then tore down that wall. It’s how it is with these two.

After playing some great defense to stay in the 11th game, Jankovic capitulated. Ivanovic crushed a forehand drive volley to end a rally at deuce, and then stopped an exciting rally, certain that the linesperson had missed a Jankovic error on the sideline. It was a big gamble, but Ivanovic was proven right.

Serving for the set in the next game, Ivanovic held off a rush by Jankovic and locked up the set with an inside-out, rally-ending forehand winner and an ace.

The second set began with a pair of holds. But in the third game, while things were still interesting, Jankovic hit an overhead and seemed to pull up short. It appeared that she pulled a stomach or upper hip muscle, and she suddenly grew subdued and looked visibly discouraged. She gave up the break without much of a fight, yet she didn’t call for the trainer (who was sitting courtside), and proceeded to play the rest of the match in bursts of energy interspersed with episodes where she seemed less than fully fit.

A drama queen of the first order, Jankovic certainly knows how to complicate a match, and also how to keep us watching—and wondering. It didn’t matter much, though, because by then Ivanovic had recovered form the lapse that enabled Jankovic to roar back in the first set. Once Ivanovic got that break for 2-1 with serve, she seemed determined not to let it go. All she had to do was take care of her serve three more times, and she accomplished that, winning the match with another service break.

It was, in the end, a strangely unsatisfying match between two strangely unsatisfied players.

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