You already had a reaction, didn't you? Maybe you thought, huh, she's fun. Or she used to be fun, what happened? Or your PTSD kicked in thinking of one of her complaints, or stories about herself, or injury timeouts, or dramas, or one of her many red leather and black-legging ensembles that flirts with you and says, hey, do you know what fashion is? Me either, but I'm really going to give it a try here. Perhaps there's fringe involved. But always bangs.
As Jankovic will tell you without you having to really ask, she was the number one player in the world (that's okay, you can hear the words in her thick accent, go ahead). But that was, in tennis terms, a long time ago. Back in 2008, Ana Ivanovic was a Grand Slam champion. Anna Chakvetadze was a top ten player. Tatiana Golovin was actually playing. And Jelena had a big ole smile on her face.
James loves a good villainess
A lot has changed since then. Jankovic put on eighty pounds of muscle in the '08-'09 off-season and it slowed her so badly that she forgot how to play attacking tennis. Or something, I don't know, the excuses were flying fast and loose as to why a player who thrilled so many with her fearless counter-punching and ridiculous court coverage would suddenly appear so average. In truth, something was weighing her down, and it dragged her smile down with it. She began playing joyless tennis, and while she never played to the depths that famously marked her 0 and 10 run back in 2006 that nearly drove her to a Vaidisova-like retirement (minus all that pesky accomplishment), you could certainly see how Jelena was once capable of stinking up the joint so badly.
It was during this time, the Dark Ages of 2009, that Jelena became, for some, unlikable. Or at least her less-attractive traits were no longer dwarfed by her stellar play. Other players were less inclined to clam up when questioned about her (Marion Bartoli outright bragged that she could basically beat Jelena with one arm tied behind her back, while Maria Sharapova took a couple of different pot shots – one in a Wimbledon press conference making a dig at her old Bollettieri rival's excuse-making, the other during a Beijing changeover referring to Victoria Azarenka as Jelena when she took an injury timeout). And fans were less inclined to come to her defense.
This, dear friends, is when I truly fell head over heels for Jelena Jankovic. I love a good villainess, especially on a tour where blondes rule and they all seem to be twittering with each other about shopping sprees and fashion shoot mishaps and calling each other 'girl'. Blech. Jelena version 2.0 made people angry, and that made my heart sing. People were aghast at the '09 Year-End Championships when, after Dinara Safina retired two games into their match with a crippling back injury, Jelena was beaming in her on-court interview. Safina's hard-fought effort to finish the year No 1 came to a crashing, crushing end, she left the court in tears and agony, and the Serb obliviously took to the mic talking up her victory and, with a big smile, thanked the crowd for their support. Is this chick for real? How dare she!
I, on the other hand, twiddled my fingers together with glee. Oh she's the worst! Pass the Chex Mix.
Fast forward to the first week of Indian Wells and even I couldn't ignore the extent of the damage to Jelena's brand. I sat in Stadium Court watching her lackluster third round win over Sara Errani and was startled by how empty the stands were. It carried over to her press conference, where journalists were asked, "English questions first?" Silence. "English questions? Are there any questions in English?" Jankovic sat gamely as it became clear there were no English-speaking reporters in attendance. At an American tournament. For the former No 1. None.
Then something happened in her next round v. an entirely in-form Shahar Peer. Some joy shone through. Little by little, against potentially dangerous opponents, Jelena started to have fun. If you build it, they will come, and fans started to show. Reporters started to show. And if Jelena is powered by anything, it's attention. Adoration. Every winner was met with her patented look around as if to say, how did I do that? I surprise myself. Jelena was once again in her element (otherwise known as Jelena's World), and she rode those good vibes straight to the title.
She joked that she just couldn't lift the trophy. She didn't have the muscle. The crowd laughed. They were reminded of the clown who loved making jokes almost as much as she liked winning titles. Jelena's back, isn't this great??
Eh. I'm a little bummed. Everyone loves a winner no matter what bad behavior they exhibit (Alec Baldwin famously called his 11-year-old daughter a pig, but hey, he's funny on 30 Rock. Tiger Woods was a one-man free clinic, but when oh when is he coming back to golf where he belongs?), and as long as Jelena keeps winning, she'll stay positive, and Evil Jelena will stay locked away in a tower.
My only bright spot is the very real fact that she won her BNP Paribas Open title by manhandling a respectable yet B+ quality of opponent. She never had to face a Justine Henin, or a Kim Clijsters, or a Williams sister. She could in Miami. Maybe she'll be brought crashing back down to earth, and the Banged Belgradian with the bad attitude will ride again. And you can bet I'll be riding shotgun.
If not, I'll just have to make do with her phenomenal tennis. And bide my time.
No matter what, we'll always have fringe.
Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.