ISTANBUL, Turkey—Just before she skipped into her press conference after her upset of Victoria Azarenka on Wednesday, the gregarious Jelena Jankovic told the official whom she was walking with that she wanted to go in immediately because she had to “tell her story.”
The former No. 1 was in fine form that evening, gleefully discussing her long and winding road back into the Top 10 in her inimitable, self-appreciating manner. No one quite loves “JJ” like JJ herself.
But beating an unmotivated, mentally-fried player like Azarenka was one thing; trying to overcome a pumped-up player who wants to end her season on a high note like Li Na was another. Jankovic fought hard and had some wonderful moments that she could celebrate with the crowd today, but it was the more solid and focused Li who had more reason to cheer during her 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 victory.
Jankovic is not far from the truth when she talks about her improvements since she was No. 1 in 2008. Her forehand is more forceful, she more comfortable at the net due to her recent commitment to doubles, and she has improved her first serve a great deal. It is not a huge weapon, but five years ago it was rare to see her power aces and service winners; instead it was her return of serve along with her sturdy defensive tactics and brilliant backhand that brought her into the Top 5. Now she has amped up her service speed and is much more accurate when she’s trying to kiss the lines.
Yet for all her improvements, the 28-year-old still has to execute on a daily basis if she is re-enter the Top 5, and she failed to do this against Li, who was the more forceful and ambitious player on the day. Li was more accurate from inside the baseline and was less predicable in her attack, consistently going behind the Serbian so that Jankovic couldn’t get comfortable running back and forth to retrieve, which she loves to do.
Li raced to a 3-0 lead as her opponent started out sloppy, but Jankovic leveled at 3-3 before China’s top player pushed her off the court and won the set with a down-the-line backhand screamer.
The second set saw Jankovic turn the tables on Li, as it was she who had better depth off the ground, nailed her returns, and was way more accurate off the forehand side. Li’s powerful forehand, a key to her opening-set win, sputtered in set two. On set point, a gleeful Jankovic ripped an inside-out backhand return winner and smiled widely at the crowd.
But Li's positive attitude helped shake away her second-set blues, along with a down-the-line backhand winner, which she struck after running down a poor volley on break point. That gave Li a 2-1 lead, and although Jankovic would break back to 3-3, the Serb's serve began to let her down at critical moments. When Li reached break point in the following game, she crushed crushed two short angled cross-court backhands to regain the lead at 4-3.
Both women were moving very well and mixed up their shot selection, but Jankovic never got a good sense as to where Li was headed with her groundstrokes, which proved to be her undoing. Li ended up breaking Jankovic once again to win the match, nailing a huge down-the-line forehand return on the penultimate deuce point. After fist-pumping toward her famous coach, Carlos Rodriguez, Li then watched Jankovic dump a backhand into the net on match point.
Li is now 2-0 in the White Group and will face Azarenka in her final round-robin match. The contingent of Chinese reporters on site suggest that Li wants revenge against Vika for her three-set defeat to world No. 2 in the Aussie Open final. Considering how well she’s competed in her first two matches and with Azarenka admittedly struggling to dig deep, Li—who beat Sara Errani in her first match—has a great shot to go into the weekend undefeated.