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Steve Flink: Why Jankovic Matters

10/6/2008 3:08:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Over this past weekend, I spent my share of hours watching the women's event on television from Stuttgart. By the time Tennis Channel picked up that tournament, Serena Williams had suffered a perplexing loss in her opening round contest, bowing 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 to the ever opportunistic Li Na of China. Williams had not competed on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour since her triumphant run at the U.S. Open had concluded more than three weeks earlier, but I had hoped Serena would do much better than that in her initial indoor appearance of the fall campaign. Too often for a player of her championship caliber, Serena beats herself. After that defeat, she withdrew from this week's Moscow event with an ankle injury.

That was surely not the best of news for avid followers of the women's game. And yet, the week ended on a much more positive note as Jelena Jankovic captured her second consecutive tournament by overcoming Venus Williams in an exceedingly well played, three set semifinal before ousting Nadia Petrova 6-4, 6-3 in the final. The way I see it, Jankovic is the single most enjoyable player to watch in the women's game. She is forever probing, looking to break her opponents down systematically, shaping masterful game plans that make her adversaries as uncomfortable as possible. She is a clear and precise thinker, and a strategist of the highest order. Her mind is one of the mightiest weapons in the women's game.

It is no wonder that Jankovic won a WTA Tour best 72 matches in 2007, and it is not surprising that she is the leader again this year with 58 match victories. No one is more industrious. No one can surpass her match playing prowess. In an era of overwhelmingly big hitters and explosive shot makers, at a time when power is nearly always a prerequisite for victory, during a period when being flashy can count for an awful lot, Jankovic stands out because she is so dissimilar from most of her rivals. She knows how to take the initiative and can control points by subtly stepping up the pace, and her two-handed backhand down the line is the defining shot in her arsenal.

But the core of her identity on the court is built largely around having the sharpest mind in her business. Her court sense is remarkably good. Her anticipation is excellent. In many ways, she reminds me of Martina Hingis. Martina, too, was surrounded by players who had the capacity to blow her off the court, by adversaries who would sometimes refuse to allow her to establish a rhythm. Like Hingis, Jankovic is tactically agile and she uses her intuitive powers to thwart big hitters.

I particularly enjoyed her battle with Venus Williams in the penultimate round at Stuttgart. Time and again, these two players seem to bring out the very best in each other. In their spirited career head-to-head series, Jankovic and Williams have collided on eight occasions. The 23-year-old Serbian now holds a 5-3 edge over Venus. They have met in three of the four majors, with Jankovic stopping Williams at Wimbledon in 2006 and Roland Garros in 2007, and Venus recording a 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory in the quarterfinals of the 2007 U.S. Open. That was the highest quality battle they have ever fought against each other.

In any case, the Stuttgart encounter was a delightful clash. The players exchanged early service breaks and then proceeded to an opening set tie-break. In that sequence, Jankovic saved two set points and then had a set point herself with Venus serving at 7-8. Venus got out of that jam with a service winner down the T, and then Jankovic made consecutive backhand unforced errors to drop the set. In the second set, Williams rallied fiercely from 3-1 down, got back to 3-3, and had Jankovic down 0-40 in the critical seventh game. Jankovic responded with a backhand half volley drop shot which Venus could not handle. Then Jankovic opened up the court beautifully with a two-hander crosscourt, setting up a forehand swing volley winner. Next, Jankovic rolled a forehand deceptively down the line into an open space. She had averted all three break points with poise under pressure. Jankovic collected the next two points to hold on gamely for 4-3.

Williams was pushing hard to record a straight set win, but Jankovic had other notions. With Venus serving at 5-6, the 28-year-old American saved three set points, but a determined Jankovic caught the edge of the sideline with a forehand down the line passing shot at full stretch to seal the set on her fourth opportunity. In the final set, Jankovic took a 3-0 lead and never looked back, claiming a well deserved 6-7 (8), 7-5, 6-2 victory.

This was no mean feat against the Wimbledon champion indoors. Venus went after Jankovic at full force and was devastatingly potent off the ground through much of the contest. Moreover, she attacked judiciously, and volleyed crisply. But, in the end, Jankovic managed to play the match essentially on her terms, prolonging the back court exchanges, showing why she is the finest defensive player in women's tennis.

But Jankovic also asserted herself just enough to keep Venus honest, shifting from defense onto offense at unexpected moments. Her signature moment came in the last game of the second set, when she concluded a gripping 28 stroke rally with a brilliantly struck forehand down the line winner. It was not the pace of her shot that enabled Jankovic to win that point; it was her extraordinary precision.

There was never much doubt that Jankovic would topple Petrova, who stood at a career high of No. 3 in the world in May of 2006. Before taking the crown in Beijing the previous week, Jankovic had won only one tournament all year long, but now she is picking up steam. She has regained the No. 1 world ranking she first garnered in the middle of August. Her status at the top is twofold: it is a tribute to her immense consistency, to the fact that she has been a quarterfinalist or better in 18 of the 19 tournaments she has played in 2008. But it is also a reminder that none of the leading players has adequately stepped up since Justine Henin retired in May.

Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Jankovic have all taken turns residing at No. 1 in the world since the departure of Henin. Sometimes, you want to stand up and scream, "Will the real world champion please stand up." Jankovic might well end this year as the top-ranked player, despite having not won a major. I don't think that would be a good thing for the women. I recall other years when the No. 1 year-end world ranking was garnered by players who did not win a single Grand Slam event.

In 2000, Hingis did not secure a major but finished on top. That was also the case with Lindsay Davenport in 2001, 2004, and 2005. Both players had great years in those cases, but without collecting Grand Slam titles they should not have been rewarded with the honor of the No. 1 world ranking. I wish the WTA and ATP Tours would have a provision explicitly stating that winning at least one Grand Slam title is mandatory for a player finishing a year at No. 1. Jimmy Connors was unable to secure any majors in either 1975 or 1977, but he still completed those seasons at No. 1 on the ATP computer. In 1982, Connors won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and was undeniably the best player in the world, but John McEnroe--- who did not come through at a Grand Slam event--- concluded that year above Connors at No. 1. Go figure.

Jankovic has posted solid results all across 2008. She made it to the semifinals of the Australian and French Opens, and reached her first "Big Four" final at the U.S. Open. She is to be commended for her consistency. In 2009, she will have a reasonably good chance to win one of the Grand Slam events. But, in my view, she does not deserve to finish this year at No. 1 without having taken a major. Nonetheless, whether or not Jankovic ends this year as the preeminent competitor in her sport, this much is certain: the women's game is a more intriguing place because she is in the thick of the battle. The craftsmanship, creativity, and ingenuity of Jelena Jankovic amount to a triumph for all of us.

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