NEW YORK—It’s always exciting when a star is born. In tennis, the moment is that much more electric when it comes at the expense of an older, fading idol. Here is that veteran, suddenly face to face with the mortality of her career. The youngster across the net seems to have boundless energy and won’t be denied. The crowd, to which the aging champion has given so much pleasure over the years, has thrown her overboard with nary a how-dee-do.
Tennis can be a cruel sport, as ninth-seeded Jelena Jankovic learned Sunday night when she was beaten in Arthur Ashe Stadium by a recklessly good and relentlessly aggressive 17-year-old from Switzerland, Belinda Bencic. The score in the 2:02 clash was 7-6 (6), 6-3, and Bencic had but one word for her transformation from a beaten quarterfinalist in the girls’ junior event last year to a main-draw quarterfinalist this year: “Insane.”
It seems like just yesterday that Jankovic, now 29 and seemingly resurgent, was racing around on the same court dressed in a daffodil-yellow dress, fighting what would be a losing battle in the championship match against Serena Williams. Despite failing in that 2008 final, Jankovic would finish the year holding the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking, even though she did not win a Grand Slam event. No matter, many thought. She had all the time in the world, and Serena was unlikely to stand in her path forever.
But the years passed. Williams did not vanish into the Hollywood ether, and Jankovic kept finding ways to waste opportunities and fritter away a reputation she had spent years building. Things happened along the way, but things always happen, to everyone. They just happened more frequently to Jankovic, leading many to a new conclusion that she had a appetite for self-destruction, or at the very least a coy relationship with success.
That latter tendency was on display tonight, too, although Bencic played as fine a match as any U.S. Open main-draw debutante in recent history. Although there were 10 breaks of serve, every one of them was well-earned and most of them fiercely contested. Right from the outset, the women bombarded each other with fetching groundstrokes. The match commenced with three consecutive breaks, but Jankovic appeared to take control of the set when she held serve for 4-2 with an outstanding recovery from 0-30 (she won the next four points, two of them outright winners and another an near ace).
Two holds later, with her opponent on the ropes, Jankovic drove a service return deep to Bencic’s forehand side and was rewarded with an error. That brought on a set point that Jankovic wasted with a backhand service return error. Bencic went on to hold, then broke Jankovic in the next game for 5-all.
Jankovic responded with an excellent game to break again, for 6-5. This time, the set points—three of them—would be during her own service game. Bencic smacked away the first one with a backhand service return winner, and the second with a backhand that painted the line and was confirmed good by Hawk-Eye. Jankovic had another set point, and though she hit a fine first serve, Bencic blasted a return that forced a backhand error.
One of Jankovic’s practical problems in this match was the lack of a game plan based on either personal experience or sound scouting. “I didn’t know her game very well, I didn’t see a lot of her and she probably saw a lot of me,” Jankovic said. “I didn’t know what to expect, I was learning how she plays while we were in the match. She reads the ball very well, she takes it early and hits it flat, and she plays a lot down the line.”
In other words, Jankovic was up against a player much like herself, only younger, more rangy, and generally bigger. (Bencic looks to be close to six feet tall, although she was announced as 5’8”. She’s growing so fast that the WTA media guide doesn’t even bother to list her height and weight). And Bencic was just getting started.
“At the beginning I was too impressed,” the teenager said. “I didn't play well. I was just, not nervous, but just overwhelmed from everything. After I got used to it and the court was little bit different. And also night session is different than in the day, so I had to have some time to adapt to everything.”
Bencic sprang the trap in the ensuing tiebreaker, despite losing the first point on an unforced error. She won the next two against Jankovic’s serve thanks to a rally error and a crisp, unreturned approach shot—a sign that the youngster was growing bolder as she settled into the match.
Although Jankovic fought back from a 1-4 deficit to 4-all, she was soon down two set points. She saved one with an ace, and the other with a fine down-the-line backhand winner. But a point later, Bencic had another set point, and she won it when Jankovic attacked and then hesitated for a fraction of a second—just long enough to make a mess of her drive volley.
“I had my chances,” Jankovic said of the dispiriting ending to the set. “I may have rushed a little but on those important points, but it just didn’t go my way.”
It was fitting that the set ended on a drive volley, albeit an errant one. For the rallies were of such high quality that each woman had plenty of opportunities to move forward behind her groundstrokes. Their shots were not only heavy, but also so precise that they opened up large tracts of court that invited moving forward.
When Bencic won the set, the fans in Ashe piled wholesale onto her bandwagon. Although the first few games of the second set were competitive, the starch gradually faded out in Jankovic. She has some of the best wheels in tennis, and nonpareil defense has been a hallmark of her game. But by the fifth game, the 17-year-old challenger was running Jankovic ragged. She was getting the best of the veteran in an increasing number of those vicious, unpredictable, warp-speed rallies.
“I tried to hold the rallies, not just stupidly risk all the time,” Bencic explained. “But then I needed to take my chances and go forward to create some pressure on her. I think that's when she was missing because otherwise when I would be too passive she wouldn't miss and she would push me.”
It signaled the end when Bencic broke Jankovic for 3-2 in that second set. Jankovic would later admit that she lost her “intensity” and succumbed to fatigue, but she was philosophical about her shortcomings. “I served for the first set, no excuse not to win it. I had everything in my control, I just let it slip away. I coulda, woulda, shoulda. . . .whatever. It’s too late now.”
Jankovic also denied that it bothered her to see the crowd migrate to its new toy, Bencic. “It didn’t hurt, not really. I remember when I was like 19 and I played the semifinals. The crowd was on my side. The crowd will always be for the underdog and especially for a youngster. If I were a spectator I would be for the youngster, too.”
It’s nice to know that Jankovic remembers what it was like when she was the new toy, and it will help her navigate the challenges presented as the light of the new stars begins to overshadow her own.