When Jelena Jankovic first assumed the No.1 ranking this summer, her ascension was largely greeted with surprise and disbelief. This was a woman who at the elderly age of 23 had not made it past a grand slam semi-final in her career, who admittedly had played a vast number of matches, but had not succeeded in converting them into titles, and was at the time losing at the quarter-final stage, week-in, week-out. Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters both reached No.1 two years before they won a major, but Jankovic’s rise was the most perturbing since Yevgeny Kafelnikov became the men’s No.1 after losing six matches in a row.
That anomalous week the Serb spent at No.1 was indicative of the moment it all went wrong on the women’s tour, a fall-out from the sudden retirement of Justine Henin in mid-May and Ana Ivanovic’s subsequent collapse under the responsibility of the top spot, her reaction to achieving too much too soon.
Left with a power vacuum at the top, for a while it looked as though it might be a Williams sister who was most deserving and best-suited to lead the women’s tour into 2009. Venus won Wimbledon with pomp and circumstance, while Serena zipped and zapped her way around Flushing Meadows, lifting her first title there in over five years, and securing the top spot at the same time.
But while the Williams sisters’ form since New York has been erratic, Jankovic has proved how much she wants to be at the top of the women’s game. Before the recent Tier II event in Beijing, the Serb had won just one title this year, and sported a poor 6-10 win-loss record in career finals. But since then, she has played her 19th tournament of the year, won three titles on the trot, and marched assertively back to the top spot, rather than conveniently side-stepping her way in.
Perhaps exactly what the women’s tour needs to shake it out of its current vacuum is a player such as the Serb, one with consistency and resilience to be its saviour. What does it matter if she is not as aesthetically pleasing to watch as Henin, or as pow-wow powerful as the Williams sisters?
Jankovic’s problem is that her affinity for the theatrical has not endeared her to fans or fellow players. Her tendency to hype up injuries and play to the crowd have marked her down as that damning stereotype, a drama queen. The infamous ‘helicopter’ quote during Wimbledon, for example, when she complained about being placed on an outside court, did nothing to help her profile. But based on the past three weeks, perhaps the drama queen has more ambitions for herself as she climbs towards the grand old age of 25.
She may spend an inordinate time on court smiling, both to herself, her box and the crowd, but Jankovic is certainly not a sweetheart. She could be as fiery and feisty as that other famous entertainer, John McEnroe. If she can channel her irritating dramatic arguments into her tennis, she might just show exactly the single-minded ruthlessness that a No.1 needs.
If there was a point in the past three weeks when Jankovic upped the ante, it came in the Stuttgart semis, when she outmanoeuvred the impenetrable Venus Williams. The elder Williams, who has barely played since Wimbledon, looked fresh and fired up, and although the Serb seemed to be walking through the first set in her usual efficient manner, the American clinched it in the tie-break.
At this point, one would normally cue much gesturing and histrionics from the Serb, accompanied by a peak in unforced errors. But instead, Jankovic looked genuinely furious. She hit hard and fast, and soon had a beleaguered Venus huffing and puffing, a sight not often seen. Showing that she can dictate rallies rather than simply retrieve someone else’s shots was probably the most important message Jankovic could give to her rivals.
With the last Tier I tournament of the year done and dusted, there are just four lesser events remaining between now and the year-end championships in Doha, which means that Jankovic has certainly thrown down the gauntlet. Winning Doha would put her in the perfect position to enter 2009 as No.1 and make her assault on a maiden grand slam title. So, in a way, she has just done things backwards. Quite appropriate for a player who is angry, happy and wacky all at the same time.