by Matt Cronin
PRAGUE - Serbians Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic sat giggling and chatting together during the Fed Cup final draw ceremony on Friday, a sight no one would have seen back in 2008 when they both rose to No.1, were fierce in-country rivals and not exactly fast friends.
But things have changed for both over the years as they have grown more mature off court and realized that there was no way they were going to be able to achieve their dream of winning Fed Cup unless they put their differences in personality behind them.
“The only way you can get to the final is to put all our energies in the same place,” Ivanovic told me.
Jankovic agreed: “Fed Cup is a team event and it’s important to have team spirit, and without it, we can’t do it.”
Despite having a former Grand Slam winner in Ivanovic and a former Grand Slam finalist in Jankovic, Serbia is a slight underdog in the final for three reasons: one, top Czech Petra Kvitova has won 10 Fed Cup matches in a row, and has only lost one indoor match off clay in the past two years; two, the defending champion Czechs will be playing at home in front of a soldout O2 Arena that seats around 15,000, and almost all those fans will be loudly pulling for the home team; three, the Czechs have better depth, not only with the competent veteran Lucie Safarova as their No. 2 singles player, but also having the world’s No. 2 doubles team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, while Serbia’s backups are the inexperienced youngsters Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic.
But that does not mean that Serbia cannot stun the Czechs. Last week, Kvitova pulled out of the WTA Championships with her fourth virus of the year and she has yet to practice for more than an hour and a half. She told me that she actually invites the pressure of Fed Cup and enjoys the responsibility of being the team’s No. 1 player, but when she takes the court against Jankovic on Saturday, she is sure to be lacking a little energy and given that the court is playing slow – which Jankovic says is to Serbia's advantage – unless JJ plays terribly, she is going have a chance to tire yank the tall left hander around some and its possible that Kvitova’s lungs won’t hold up.
Fortunately for the Czechs, Ivanovic is not 100 percent either. She injured her hip two weeks ago in Moscow and only started to run without considerable pain on Wednesday, although she feels she’s ready for Saturday. But world No. 17 Safarova beat her the last three times they have met, so even at 100% Ivanovic was no lock to win anyway.
With the Olympics thrown into the 2012 season, it has been a very long year for the players, All of them at Fed Cup admitted to being tired after the US Open, but all say they want to give it one last go this weekend. Because whomever wins will be able to go into the off-season on a high, and whomever loses won’t exactly be going to the airport having rose petals thrown at their feet when they go on vacation next week.
The Czechs know what it feels like to raise the big trophy.
The Serbian women know what it was like to watch Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Victor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic win Davis Cup for the first time in 2010 in Belgrade and then follow it up with career years in 2011.
“We are thinking we can do the same,” Ivanovic said.“All of the guys after Davis Cup had great years and we are hoping for the same confidence boost.”
While there are some critics in large Western countries that dismiss Fed Cup as a competition that few pay attention to, that is a very narrow minded view when every nation is taken into account. The Czechs sold out the O2 arena in less than day and when I mentioned to Ivanovic how cool it will be to play in front of such a huge crowd, she reminded me that Serbia has Fed Cup attendance record of 15,700 for its 2009 win over Japan in Belgrade.
I guess it's fair to say that more than few folks care somewhat, so just because some U.S.ties have not done well attendance-wise, that doesn't mean that Eastern European countries like Serbia and the Czech Republic -- which are still re-establishing their sporting identities post the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989– don't value it.
Some players think the world of the competition as well. Jankovic was presented with the Fed Cup heart award on Friday, the second time she has received it, which recognizes players who have represented their country with distinction, shown courage on court and demonstrated an outstanding commitment to their team.
There’s no arguing with her commitment. She began playing Fed Cup in 2001, holds a 34-12 record and is unbeaten in Fed Cup for the past two years in singles and doubles. I mentioned to her her how many times I’ve heard players throw out the standard line of “loving to play for my country” and then play rarely, or if they do, play an uninspired brand of yellow ball. But she honestly seems to get up for every tie.
She has played every year since 2001and has competed in Euro-Africa Zonal competition in Spain, Turkey, Portugal,and Greece and other locales. Serbia didn't even make it to the main World Group until 2009, but she didn't get discouraged.
“I remember when I was young and playing in the small groups and it was so difficult," she told me. “But even when I wasn't in form and feeling well, I somehow I found drive and energy to play well. This final is a historic moment for Serbian women’s tennis. It's a big opportunity and we are very motivated. We have come a long way. Its goes really slowly and it’s been a lot of hard work, but I’ve been playing longer than any of the other girls so it makes it real special.”
Whether Serbia can pull off an upset this weekend is unclear, but what is true is that Ivanovic and Jankovic will be rooting for each other.
In fact, should they win the Fed Cup, they may even be pulling for each other next year on tour.
Back in 2007 after a hard fought three set win by Ivanovic over her rival, they could not even agree on when and where they first met.
Now Jankovic – who has always been the more self-involved of the two – has actually become conscious of Ivanovic’s place in the game and seems to be on the same side of the net.
“Maybe if we win maybe we can have a great years,”Jankovic said. “I dropped out of the top 10 the past two years and it would be nice to see me and Ana come back to where we belong.”