The JJ Show
NEW YORK—The action at the U.S. Open so far has mostly been on the newer, west side of the grounds. That’s where CiCi Bellis turned Court 6 into a rowdy city of tennis fans, and where Roger Federer and Michael Jordan staged their promotional love fest inside Ashe Stadium. In general, the buzz, and the crowds, have gathered around the new bleachers above the west-gate practice courts.
So a trip to the old east side of Flushing Meadows, which was fairly sleepy on a humid Wednesday, felt a little nostalgic. This is where the Grandstand sits. Once the second-largest arena on the grounds, it’s now the equivalent of an outer borough. Through the years, the new construction has slowly moved away from the Grandstand, and it no longer fits into the mainstream of the pedestrian traffic flow here. Short of a (deserved) preservationist intervention, the court is slated to be demolished.
But it’s still the best place in New York, and just about anywhere else, to watch tennis. To hear it as well: The acoustics here give the sonic power of the sport its due. Today the Grandstand seemed like the right spot to check in on another seemingly ageless tennis veteran, Jelena Jankovic, who played and won her second straight match on this court, 7-5, 6-4, over Tsvetana Pironkova. Jankovic is not as old as the Grandstand—JJ is 29; the GS is 36 (both are twice CiCi Bellis’s age)—and she doesn’t get demolished often. But this venerable stadium suits a former U.S. Open finalist who, six years later, has worked herself back into the lower reaches of the Top 10.
It also suits Jankovic’s game and personality at this stage in her career. Her shots are as solid and reliable as they ever were. She still makes very few errors, and like her fellow Serb Novak Djokovic, she’s still the master of the down the line; she opens up points with it the way most people open up points by going cross-court. Judging by what I saw today, I’d even say that her serve is better, with more upward extension and flow, than it was when she was at her best in the late aughts. Jankovic isn’t as fast as she once was, she doesn’t do the splits like she once did, and she doesn’t get as much air as she used to on her leaping forehand. She also did more than her share of huffing and puffing on this hot day. Yet she still tracked down pretty much everything that came off Pironkova’s racquet.
From up close, with the sound of her two-handed backhand popping around the stadium, you could get a sense of how physical Jankovic’s style remains—you can see the effort in her face every time she hits a return of serve, and every time she’s stretched along the baseline. What’s remarkable is her accuracy, a product of thousands of hours of pounding tennis balls in the Florida heat since she was a young girl. I visited her at the Bollettieri Academy in the off-season a few years ago, and as much as she (laughingly) complained about having to practice and train and practice again every day, the tennis court was obviously her home, the only life she knew.
That doesn’t seem to have changed in the slightest. Jankovic has been on tour for 14 years, half of her life, and played 900 WTA matches. At this point, she's the consummate old pro, happy to be on the road and in front of a crowd. The modest environs of the Grandstand were also well-suited to JJ’s on-court personality. She doesn’t dominate a stadium with her presence, à la Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. And today she didn’t seem to have the energy for the extended kvetching she’s famous for—10 years ago on this court, I heard JJ yell at a chair umpire in exasperation, “You’ve missed hundreds and hundreds of calls today.” But she still brings the audience in and involves us in her game. She’s more of a smiler, and a chatterer, than she is a fist-pumper.
Early in the match, after Jankovic hit a service winner, two (possibly soused) guys behind her yelled, “Nice serve!” She whipped her head around at them, narrowed her eyes, and, after a couple of seconds, flashed them a smile. Later, she bantered with a woman at one end of the court, and with a couple at the other end; I didn’t hear what JJ said, but she left the fans laughing. After her mistakes, she let out a stream of chatter in Serbian. When one overrule went against her, she barked at the chair umpire, “Why are you always so late?” (The umpire hadn’t been late.) On one point late in the first set, Jankovic sprinted across the net, but failed to reach a Pironkova passing shot. JJ seemed to enjoy the effort, anyway. Despite losing the point, she ran, smiling again, right to her sideline chair for the changeover. Nothing is ever quite perfect for Jankovic on a tennis court, but nothing is ever the end of the world, either.
On match point at 5-4 in the second, JJ looked nervous for the first time all day, placing the ball safely in the middle of the court. She was performing one of tennis’ cardinal sins, “waiting for her opponent to give it to her.” But her opponent did give it to her: Pironkova finally hit a forehand long. Maybe the old pro knew what she was doing, after all.
Afterward, the on-court interviewer told Jankovic, “Everyone is saying you’re back to your old form again, when you were No. 1 in the world.” Jankovic, not missing a beat, joked, “That’s what you’re saying.”
As JJ knows, it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever return to No.1. But then we’ve learned over the years that she really isn't that type of player or person. She doesn’t have a Serena-like talent, or her single-minded drive for domination. And Jankovic never wanted to take time off and focus on the Grand Slams, the way the top players must. She could never leave the road or the court for long. Win or lose, Jankovic has mostly walked off with a smile, cracked up the press corps in the interview room, and moved on to the next city with the rest of the traveling tennis circus. I can’t think of another player right now who embodies that old favorite saying of tennis warriors and tennis bums everywhere: "There’s always another match."
As the Grandstand crowd broke up and moved on to another court, JJ was asked again about how she was playing. She only had one thing to say: “I really enjoy my tennis.”