Saturday, December 13, 2008

2009's I.Q.: Will (Queen) Chaos Truly Reign?

Does this woman know something we don't?

What's that crawling out of the primordial tennis ooze, growing legs and suddenly walking upright? Oh my! Could it be Jelena Jankovic? Look, she's sprouting wings and crouching, as if she's readying to take flight.

And why not? After a season accented by a very Jankovician brand of anarchy that managed to land her in the season-ending #1 ranking catbird seat, the spotlight-loving , sly-like-a-fox, walking and talking Serbian question mark, exclamation point, asterisk, medical oddity, smiley face and all-around most entertaining player in the sport is due a proper encore in 2009, seeing as even though she's been around for a few years a large portion of the sporting public only received a proper introduction to her uniquely fascinating, theatrical, exasperating, irritating, humorous, infuriating, wonderful, horrible, fun and maybe even one day emotionally fulfilling game just last season.

(Whew! Time to take a breath.)

As is often the case with Jankovic, exaggeration is unusually easy, but very rarely unreasonable. What else would you expect from a player who's known for almost quitting the sport two years ago after an extended bad stretch of results, but whose renowned knack for over-dramatizing nearly everything makes the entire story feel akin to an Alfred Hitchcock "MacGuffin."

The WTA computer SAYS that she's #1 in the world, by a considerable margin, but even those of us who appreciate the whirling Serbian dervish for what she IS would more than likely concede that Jankovic probably isn't the "most talented" player on tour. (Heck, even SHE would probably admit it.) But her ability to win people over IS growing. After fighting against Queen Chaos' lure all season, by the end of '08 some "converts" stopped pooh-poohing her for what she ISN'T (like say, a grand slam champ) and began to commend her heart, smarts and tour-leading consistency... even if they seemed to be doing so through gritted teeth and a phony smile meant to mask their desire for a more "substantial" figurehead at the top of the sport. Oh, well. I guess if everyone can't have the #1 they want, they'll learn to live with the #1 they've got. Or something like that.

Ah, but maybe that's what 2009 will bring us. Could the coming season make us re-think the notion about whether Jankovic truly is the "best?" Will it be the year that the theory of tennis evolution is proven in a way that silences all doubts and doubters?

Well, I know that I, for one, didn't realize that Jankovic was as good as she's managed to become. That's not damning her with faint praise, either. A year ago, I'd have said that the best she'd ever likely do at a slam was get "close," but she'd never win one. A year later, there's a sense that she HAS to become a slam champion in due order. Why? What's happened to foster such a change of opinion?

Well, frankly, Justine Henin retired. But more on the specifics of that theory in a moment.

Personally, I never thought that Jankovic was made of "grand slam timber" because, beyond good defense and a nice backhand down the line, I didn't see the one lethal component that most full-fledged #1's have that make opponents sweat bullets nor, most importantly, the character necessary to rise to the big occasion. Her 0-9 record against then-#1 Henin seemed to bear it out, too, with her 2006 U.S. Open semifinal mental meltdown against the Belgian representing the most telling lowlight of the series for Jankovic. To win a slam, she'd have to go through Henin, and that was the one thing she seemed hopelessly incapable of doing.

But then a most fortuitous thing happened. Henin retired and, perhaps not coincidentally, Jankovic began to bloom in the vacuum her exit produced.. The Serb won the first WTA tour event -- in Rome -- contested in the wake of Henin's abrupt departure. Two weeks later, she reached the Roland Garros semis and played countrywoman Ana Ivanovic for the #1 ranking. She failed to seize it then, as well as a few other times, before finally backdooring the top ranking by rising into the spot during the tour "bye" week leading into the Olympics in August. She only held the ranking for seven days, but her appetite was sufficiently whetted.

Unlike Ivanovic, who seemed to wilt in the pressure-filled spotlight that accompanied the #1 ranking, Jankovic enjoyed and craved the added attention. Her work with trainer Pat Etcheberry to become fitter ultimately enabled her athleticism to flourish and her scrappy, I-can-outlast-anyone-not-named-Justine mentality in a marathon match to prevail over her previously flimsy constitution in the clutch. Working with coach Ricardo Sanchez helped produce an improved, though still not particularly dangerous, serve that helped kick off the sorts of long rallies that work to an in-tune Jankovic's advantage. She even managed, after a rocky start, to cut back her jam-packed schedule (eleven in the Top 20 played more events than her twenty-two, and two of them were fellow Top 10ers), if only a bit, and was rewarded with enough gas left in the tank to produce a strong final kick that made the final quarter of her season her best.

But even while her game was tightened, there was still something missing. The amusing novelty of a player who in the past had often seemed to subsist on early-morning epiphanies, the tour workhorse who usually resembled a medical calamity waiting to happen (see Perth last January), was still seen by many as a mirage partial to makeup, face glitter and injury time-outs. More court jesteress than genuine queen.

But late last summer in New York, where she'd previously blown her most golden slam opportunity, something about Jankovic was fundamentally transformed. Maybe it was the taste of "the good life" of being #1 she'd enjoyed, or simply the deliberate result of a great deal of work and sweat that did it. Whatever it was, Jankovic came to NYC not in top shape after missing training time following a Wimbledon knee injury, with her game a bit ragged. But after gutting out a few tight early matches, "New York Jelena" started to believe... and continued to win, all the way to her first slam final. There, against Serena Williams, even in defeat, she put up such a grand, aggressive fight that a "light" seemed to go off in her head. After having turned pro in 2000, she'd finally grown up and realized she COULD win a grand slam.

After that, everything changed.

Her Open adventure certified Jankovic's big stage pedigree and nerve. In the final months of the 2008 season, the experience served her well. There, the chaotic sister from another planet started walking, talking and acting like a true #1 player. Dare I say it, there was something more "professional" about her entire process and approach, on and off court. Oh, the loopy side stories were still there (like openly wishing to win a red Porsche because it would match one of her pairs of shoes), but they didn't distract HER... only others. THIS Jankovic, while still maintaining her quirky appeal, had a different mindset. THIS Jankovic said in Moscow that she'd heard whispers from others players that she'd developed something of an "intimidation factor" while running off three straight titles in a three-week stretch (a run that finally included her first victory over a Top 5 player in fifteen months), and no one rolled their eyes when she uttered the words.

She had all the things she'd had before: the defense, the scrambling, the never-give-up disposition, the backhand down the line and that more accurate serve propped up by a honed fitness and well-earned confidence. But, as the season drew to a close, Jankovic not only wanted the #1 ranking, but realized that she could, and maybe SHOULD, have it, as well. After previously rising to #1 by traveling around the bend, under a bridge, through a chicken coop, across a lily pad-strewn pond and over a sky-full of puffy clouds, she seized it with great force in October, taking a direct route to the top spot and finishing with a massive 844-point bulge over world-#2 Williams.

Of course, none of it could have happened without the retirement of Henin.

Though the Belgian's absence was often wielded by many as an axe to cut down Jankovic's accomplishments in '08 down to size, the "cup is half full" outlook also can make a case for the Serb being fortified by the subtraction of Henin as much as the WTA field was "lessened" without the dominant #1 sitting atop the women's game. The fact is, the "vacuum" had as much to do with Ivanovic and Serena's ascensions to #1 as it did with Jankovic's (AnaIvo probably wouldn't have won RG with Henin around, and remember that Henin had Williams' number in the '07 slams, too), but it was she who was continually held up as example of the "mediocrity" of the game in the post-Henin era through the final months of the '08 season.

For more than any other player, a WTA tour without "La Petit Taureau" meant the birth of HOPE for Jankovic. Having never beaten her, the former #1 presented an astonishing mental block that potentially stood in her path down the road at nearly every major tournament Jankovic entered. The '06 Open match was just the most vivid example of the dynamic. Without Henin, there was no reason for Jankovic to believe that she couldn't outlast anyone put in front of her (an in-form Serena -- though not necessarily Venus, against whom Jankovic has been quite successful -- possibly being a notable exception, which hardly makes Jankovic unique in the WTA field). What we got was a less-constricted Jelena... and, as difficult as it might be to believe, the globe didn't reverse its spin.

In the end, Jankovic shares some of Henin's traits. Like the Belgian, she's not going to out-hit the biggest hitters, nor serve the best servers off the court. But she CAN outwork them. With no Henin around, no player can put her nose to the grindstone and grit out a victory better than her... and she manages to do it with an occasional smile to break the tension, too. That's quite a mental weapon to conceal in your back pocket.

While Jankovic's #1 credentials were strengthened with her late-season upswing, there's still a huge hole in her career resume. For all that the Divine Miss J did in 2008, she still needs to win a grand slam title to convince many that she's truly earned her position rather than simply inherited it by default. To fully assume a place in the history of her sport, it's essential she pick up some hardware to prove her worth to a sometimes-skeptical public that prefers it's #1's either American, blond or fully-sponsored. Even Henin, so heralded after she was gone, was often ignored by large chunks of the media during her reign. For Jankovic to leave her mark, she'll have to try even harder.

Thus, for the player whose smile launched a thousand stories, and a few sneers, 2009 is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

But can the clown princess REALLY rule the courts? After all, with so much to prove, Jankovic will never be faced with as much pressure of expectation as she will in the upcoming season. Never has a woman been able to be both the sport's jesteress AND it's queen, but maybe Jelena can. An ever-improving serve, more in-point aggression against top-level competition and a welcome ability to construct a point, all of which she utilized so well in '08, will certainly further help her sharpen her game's teeth, as long as she stays focused and healthy. Her offseason training schedule in Mexico, designed to better prepare her for the long season ahead, proves that there's no rest for the wacky... or the newly determined.

Is she an all-time great? Well, no. But a case can be made that neither is Maria Sharapova, who's limited on one surface and whose grass court "prowess" is still being overwhelmingly propped up by a single Wimbledon result from nearly five years ago. But maybe no player has been more important to the women's game than the Russian since she burst onto the scene. Jankovic, too, could prove to be an invaluable asset to the tour for the next few seasons.

A natural ham and entertainer of the masses, with just enough of an edge behind the smile to make her interesting, Queen Chaos could be the female version of Jimmy Connors. She won't be forced to wear the "black hat" that Henin often did, but it won't be "pearl white," either. Of course, it's hard to see the Serb in any shade of gray. It might clash with her shade of eye shadow. (How about a nice fusia?) Most fans are going to either love her antics or loathe them. But that's just what the sport needs -- someone who bears watching for whatever reason, every time she hits the court. The Jankovic Zone is fun for the whole family.

Will Jankovic win a slam in 2009? I truly think so, but you never know. We are talking about Jelena, after all. Surely, at worst, the journey will be Oscar-worthy. Even if she doesn't win in either Melbourne, Paris or New York (a London title would be a surprise, but it's an odd enough possibility to not put it past her -- she did beat Venus there in '06, after all), it wouldn't make her any less precious a resource. Jelena being Jelena -- and no player on earth enjoys being herself on the court more than this particular Serb -- is worth the price of admission on its own unique merit.

Snezana's daughter is almost there. Living in the moment. Striving, per chance to dream. And win... bigger than ever. Grinning all the way to the winner's circle. Clicking the heels of her red shoes, proving that a dervish does indeed whirl. By the end of 2009, we'll know the truth about tennis evolution.

Well, maybe not REALLY. But in true Jankovician style, why not highlight drama for the sake of drama? Queen Chaos wouldn't have it any other way.

All for now.

...All-Decade Nominations
...Most Intriguing Question
...Volley #8-10
...Prediction Blowout
...ATP Top 10 Picks
...Volley #5-7
...The Intriguing 75: Region-by-Region
...Volley #1-4
...What If?
...1st Qtr. Preview
...Week 1 Picks


Blogger Karen said...

Very good article and very interesting commentary that you have made. Until I see Jelena actually hoistiing that trophy I will reserve my thoughts on her winning a major. Everyone speaks about her winning 3 titles in a row, forgetting that for much of the year in 2008 she had only had 1 title to her name. She got those titles when the rest of the tour had pretty much given up competing etc. Good on her for still being there and being dogged. Hopefully she will change the dramatics that surround her and go out there and represent the sport, not with gimmicks etc but with professionalism etc. It is all well and good to be smiling etc, but on the court I think it smacks a little bit of disrespect to your opponent when you laugh etc because you have played a good point. She needs to be a tad more professional

Sun Dec 14, 06:35:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I think what happened in New York is actually more important than what happened afterward. The seed was planted at the Open, and the titles were just proof that it took root. (I must have gardening on the brain.) In a way, she was almost more impressive in the tournament she didn't win than in the ones she did. How typically Jankovician.

We'll see if she can carry it over into '09.

Mon Dec 15, 12:56:00 PM EST  
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