NEW YORK—Jelena Jankovic isn’t happy. She throws her hand in the air and grumbles in Serbian toward the corner of the bleachers on little Court 4 here. It’s not clear if she knows anyone in that section, or if she just needs a place to aim her complaints. It’s also not clear what’s bothering Jankovic at the moment. I don't say that because she’s speaking a language that few here understand. I say that because she’s just won the previous point.
That’s JJ being JJ: She has to vent, even if she’s winning. Maybe even especially if she’s winning. As every tennis player knows, success doesn’t make you happy, it only makes you anxious. Most players get angry because they’ve missed a shot. Sometimes, with Jankovic, I suspect that she’s missed the shot so she can give herself a chance to get angry.
After getting her feet tangled up and sending a forehand long today, she searches for her brother (and coach) Marko in the stands. When she finds him, she lashes out with some more grumbly Serbian; it sounds as if the court surface isn’t to her liking at the moment. Marko takes it all in with a half smile, and gives her an encouraging word back. Mollified for the moment, she settles down and heads back to the baseline. It used to be her mother, Snezana, who took the brunt of her abuse, but Marko has filled in so nicely far this year. The change had been good for the Jankovic family.
Marko started coaching Jelena at the Bogota event in February. She won that tournament and has seen her ranking rise back up to No. 12 after reaching the final in Charleston, the semis in Miami and Cincinnati, and the quarters at the French Open. The former No. 1, who has always played as many tournaments as humanly possible, already has more wins this season than she did in all of 2012, when injuries and burnout sent out her out of the Top 20 for the first time since 2005.
“I just tried to stay strong, and I changed up a few things,” Jankovic told USA Today last week when asked about her mini-resurgence. “Now I really enjoy training, and I’m pretty healthy. We’ll see—so far, so good.”
Whatever you do, don’t call the 28-year-old Jankovic a veteran—she hates that. But she did look the part of the roughed-up road warrior at the Open on Thursday; there was tape up and down her legs. There was nothing wrong with JJ’s game, though. She may not be as fast she was when she was in the Top 5, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she moves. Jankovic is one of those players whose athleticism needs to be seen live and up close to be appreciated; she’s more dynamic than you might think on TV, fun to watch for her instinctive movement alone. She looks light as she rolls her shoulders forward and goes after a ball; as she leaps back for a forehand; as she leans into one her trademark down-the-line backhands; as she darts her way to the net.
That's right, to the net. Jankovic has made an effort to get there more often this year—with her quickness and court sense, she should be a natural. With that in mind, she started playing doubles in earnest in 2013, and she says that it has helped in her attempt to add a dimension to her game.
“Adding a dimension” is not something we expect from the pros these days; they mostly dance with what brung them. I didn’t expect much from Jankovic this year, either. After 2012 and her 28th birthday, it seemed that a decade of non-stop play and travel had finally taken their toll, and that the women’s game had begun to pass her by. It’s nice to be wrong, and to see her flying around the court again. She won easily today, 6-3, 6-2—despite her best efforts, even JJ couldn’t find a way to get irritated—and her draw looks OK-bordering-on-promising. She’ll play Kurumi Nara next, and after that the winner of Li Na and Laura Robson.
The crowd in New York, which remembers JJ from her run to the final here five years ago, was happy to see her again, too, even if she was out on Court 4 rather than in Ashe. “C’mon Jelena!” they called. After someone told her to “concentrate,” Jankovic looked in the direction of the perpetrator and threw her hand in the air in annoyance—“Easy for you to say,” was the message. But no one seemed offended. We knew it was just JJ being JJ.
One thing Jankovic isn’t known for is having especially warm relations with her fellow players. But today, at the handshake, she took a moment to chat with her vanquished opponent. It would have been weird if she hadn’t, because that opponent was 24-year-old Russian Alisa Kleybanova, who was making her first Grand Slam appearance since being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011. Kleybanova’s resurgence dwarfs whatever Jankovic has accomplished this season. Alisa might not put it this way, but she was a winner from the moment she walked on court today.
After working her way through lower-level ITF events, Kleybanova returned to the tour this summer and was able to use her protected ranking to enter the Open, despite her current, actual ranking of No. 363. She pulled off a minor upset, over Monica Puig, in her first match here, but she says she’s still taking everything day by day. The tour life, post-cancer, remains uncharted territory. Everything remains uncharted territory.
“Right now it’s a little bit strange still to be in any kind of tournament,” let alone a Grand Slam, Kleybanova said with a laugh after her first-round win. “It’s still hard for me to say how it’s going to be in the long run because I haven’t played many matches yet.”
Some days, certainly, will be better than others. By the end of her two sets against Jankovic, Kleybanova looked a little winded and a step slow. But she worked—ran, grunted, gave what she had—until the final point. From 0-4 down in the second set, when all looked lost, she managed a quick run of two games.
Of course, we know there can be no quit in Kleybanova. She says that when she was sick, she kept envisioning a tennis court. It was the thought of that court, and playing on it again, that drove her recovery. The desire to play was fuel to her.
Asked if she had been confident that she would beat cancer, she said that nothing else entered her mind.
“At that moment [when I was sick], I just wanted to come back on the court so much,” said Kleybanova, who went through six months of chemotherapy at age 22. “I wanted to play tennis again so much that it wasn’t a question for me. I just saw a tennis court a few months ahead. I was ready to go through anything. I wanted to be back healthy and play again. I think that gave me a lot of power, a lot of confidence, and I was very patient...My goal was so big to get over this that I think that’s what helped me. When you have a big goal in front of you, you do everything to reach it.”
Yet Kleybanova says she doesn’t want to be a model for people.
“I’m doing this for myself,” she says. “I just want to be a tennis player right now.”
That must, at one point or another, have felt like an impossible dream to Kleybanova, no matter confident she was of making it back.
Even in defeat today, she was definitely a tennis player again. Late in the second set, when the match was seemingly over, she approached the net. Jankovic hit a nice, dipping backhand pass that I thought would go for a winner. But Kleybanova, at full stretch, came up with the deftest of backspinning drop volleys to win the point—even JJ clapped.
You could see then why Kleybanova would be so driven to come back to tennis. The running, the timing, the body control that goes into even the simplest shot: All sports require a level of coordination that we regularly underrate, but tennis, to this biased player's mind, requires the most of all. Tennis is hardly essential to existence, but for someone who has been as far from good health, as far from the court as Kleybanova, being able to make a shot as dazzling as that drop volley must feel essential. To me, it was a symbol of how far she had come. She had come back, not just to the daily routine of life, but all the way back to a beautiful and unexplainable, and just plain fun, part of life.
Tennis might seem to be a luxury, but it wasn’t for Alisa Kleybanova—it was, with no exaggeration, a reason to live. In its casual intricacy, its invisible blend of grace and power and speed and touch, the sport can look like the ultimate expression of health. That’s something worth fighting to do again.