It seems like just yesterday that we were in Paris celebrating the “Serbian spring”—those heady days in 2008 when Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, and Jelena Jankovic were fresh faces and the talk of the tennis world.
That May, all three players burst through to the semifinals at Roland Garros, and the women in some ways overshadowed Djokovic. For one thing, there were two of them; for another, they were strikingly different from one another. And, finally, they were obliged to play each other for a place in the final.
Ivanovic led the head-to-head rivalry with Jankovic by that time, despite being roughly three years younger, 5-1. If Jankovic were to reverse the tide, that semifinal was the place to begin the process. But she fell just short, with Ivanovic pulling out a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory en route to the title.
It’s tempting to say the long-term status of both women was cast in stone that day, even though Jankovic had the last laugh in 2008 by earning the year-end world No. 1 ranking. In ensuing years, however, Jankovic would be plagued by meltdowns and consistently overshadowed by the diligent and much-loved Ivanovic.
These two Serbians continue to fascinate many of us, even as Jankovic enters her 30s with the dream of winning a major title rapidly evaporating—and even as Ivanovic, hoping to get back to the top, keeps spinning her wheels so furiously that you can smell rubber burning in the air over any court she sets foot on.
As the Asian swing gets underway, Jankovic is ranked No. 25 and once again is showing signs of resurgence—what is this, the fourth, ninth, 11th time? She cleaned up at Guangzhou last week, beating up on poor greenhorn Denisa Allertova in the final, 6-2, 6-0.
In the process, Jankovic also joined Venus and Serena Williams as the only active players with 600 wins (only 16 women in the entire Open era have won that many matches, and 12 of them have won Grand Slam singles titles). Venus and Serena have won a combined 28 Grand Slam singles titles. Jankovic has reached but one final, at the 2008 U.S. Open, where she lost to Serena, 6-4, 7-5.
Securing the year-end No. 1 ranking is the one significant achievement of Jankovic’s that Ivanovic has never been able to match (Ivanovic was briefly No. 1 after her French Open win). Yet Jankovic is more famous for accomplishing it without winning a Grand Slam title than for the consistency that earned her the honor.
Jankovic has 14 titles to her credit thus far, eight of them Premier-level or higher. That’s a fairly modest haul for a player in the 600 win-club, and it underscores Jankovic’s shortcomings as a player and her longstanding penchant for self-sabotage. She’s had her chances at the majors, having played in six semifinals and a final. But the drama queen always asserted her authority over the practical-minded tennis player. Jankovic has found ways to shoot herself in the foot by throwing a tantrum over a line call, succumbing to some other distraction, or simply losing the plot.
All this might make you feel badly for Jankovic, but for the fact that she’s vivacious and quick to laugh, even at herself. Even after she’s taken a bad loss you walk away thinking, “She’s going to be okay.” It’s clear that she still enjoys playing, and she’s an absolute joy to watch. Who can forget Jankovic, outfitted in an Easter-yellow dress, smiling and laughing as she scrambled after all those Williams blasts in the ’08 Open final? Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to join the crowd in watching replays of herself on the Jumbotron, but that’s Jankovic for you.
Style-wise, Jankovic is a fluid, instinctive player whose athleticism is complimented by often radiant ball-striking. Just watch when she wraps her forehand follow-through around her left shoulder, her braid flying across her back, her left foot off the ground. You’d swear she’s the figurehead off the prow of an old Spanish galleon, come to life.
To my mind, one of the great crimes against sport is that Jankovic has never had what it takes to win a Grand Slam singles title. It’s almost as much of a travesty as the fact that Jankovic and Ivanovic have never teamed up to win a Fed Cup for Serbia. But that’s tennis for you.
Speaking of Ivanovic, it’s hard to say a negative word about her. She appears to be on some sort of quest for perfection in, well, everything. In fact, it may be the very thing that holds her back.
Ivanovic’s strokes are precise, even elegant (her serve, which she sometimes must go chasing, is an exception), but they’re not quite explosive, and rarely employed in a creative way. Ivanovic dots every “i” and crosses every “t.” She works incredibly hard. Yet if you charted her career on a graph it would look like the electrocardiograph of a patient in cardiac arrest. It’s because Ivanovic, who’s simply dripping with poise in most of her glam shots, tends to go to pieces inside during key moments in tennis matches.
Ivanovic is back up No. 9 in the world rankings, but once again her Grand Slam season was a disappointment. The only bright spot was a French Open semifinal, but even then she botched an excellent opportunity, losing to No. 13 seed Lucie Safarova. Ivanovic won just one match at the other three majors combined.
It’s hard to watch Ivanovic play sometimes, simply because it’s obvious how earnestly she wants to win, and how much work she’s put into preparing herself. Unlike some, she isn’t conspicuously aggressive in her behavior, but there she is, twirling and clenching her fist after a nice shot just two games into a second-round match against a relative nobody. You almost want to tap her on the shoulder and say, “Hey, try not to want it so much—maybe you’ll get it.”
Okay, so it doesn’t usually work that way in tennis. It still seems that Ivanovic gets herself tied up in knots, even at the veteran age of 27. And a part of her must wonder why, when she works so hard at doing everything right, the big payoff she seeks is still being withheld.
Ivanovic still has just one Grand Slam title, the one she earned at Roland Garros in that magical 2008 season. She hasn’t reclaimed the No. 1 ranking since then. Much the same can be said for Jankovic, although she lasted at No. 1 for a little while longer. Perhaps one day the two women can sit down over a glass of wine and recall what a wonderful year that was for both of them, for their compatriot Djokovic, and for tennis.
Perhaps they could also get together and win the Fed Cup, so Jankovic won’t feel so badly about never having won a major, and Ivanovic won’t get the blues about never finishing the year ranked No. 1. Some goals are more realistic, and appropriate, than others.