I can think of lots of reasons to like Jelena Jankovic, including the Flying Ponytail and China Doll make-up, and laser-like, stinging two-handed backhands. But the best reason of all may be her light-hearted appreciation of all things crazy and unpredictable. She takes this placid, often grave game that thrives on nicely executed set pieces and forehand to backhand conversations and turns it into women's mud wrestling in chiffon cocktail dresses.
We had a good example of that today. As we settled into our seats in the shade of press row to watch Jelena play the final of the Sony Ericsson Open against Serena Williams, we were expecting a tough, compelling and basically sensible clash between the best attacker and best defender in the WTA game. What we got was semi-orchestrated insanity hitting dramatic heights usually reserved for pro wrestling. The match started ugly, turned riveting, and finally radiated pathos before Williams won 6-1,5-7,6-3.
I confess that as a professional tennis watcher, I'm not sure I'm supposed to like this stuff. Praising it seems to be my vocation's equivalent of extolling the virtues of unfiltered Camel cigarettes or deep-fried chicken to impressionable children. But that chicken, it sure tastes good. This match was a hoot, but I find it's often like that when I catch Jelena (in her first round match here, she was 1-5 and five match points down in the third before she stamped her foot and cried, No mas!).
Ah, Jelena. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll throw popcorn at the screen and demand your money back. We were on the verge of that as Williams jumped out to a 6-1, 3-0 lead, with Jankovic spraying balls so badly that she sometimes doubled over in embarrassment at the baseline. She looked like she was about to hurl. She wasn't the only one.
It was so bad in the early going that at one point she challenged a call on a ball that had to be four-feet beyond the baseline. But I guess that when your other shots are landing 12 feet back, you've got legitimate cause to hope. But just when it seemed that the match was going to wind up as another of those 6-1, 6-1 bummers that remains the bane of the women's tour, it morphed into something far more palatable - a sometimes fascinating struggle between the hunter (Williams) and the hunted (Jankovic). As is often the case in that scenario, the prey kept slipping out of the grasp of the predator, and the hunt would begin all over again. And again.
Jankovic worked her way back into the second set with admirable grit and her finest tennis, which is an appealing display of aggressive counter-punching with a striking degree of athleticism and an unrivaled arsenal of quality strokes. She plays with a low center of gravity, which shows superb discipline. She seems to scuttle, crab-like, and just because she's gone off your TV screen or out of your peripheral vision doesn't mean the ball she's chasing won't come spinning back, sky-high over the net. Today, at one point she stretched for a shot to her right and ended up doing a perfect split. She's plays like a gymnast.
Although the backhand is Jankovic's more reliable shot, it's a treat to see her powder that forehand, the follow-through wrapping around on a nearly level plane, just below shoulder, in a manner that reminds me of Roger Federer. The momentum of the shot often brings her right foot clear of the ground and curling up behind her. Freeze the pose, add the trailing rope of hair, and you could carve it into a nice wooden figurehead for the SS Serbia.
But Williams sails under the Jolly Roger, cannons bristling starboard and port. Her game plan was to overwhelm Jankovic with firepower, and it bore fruit throughout the match - even in the critical middle portion, when her forehand was frequently misfiring and she was being broken as often as she broke. I'm not going to bother much with "turning points" or any of that other hooey, unless we're talking in multiples of seven. The match featured 32 break points (22 for Serena, who converted just eight of them) and 13 service breaks in 21 games (not counting the tiebreaker).
That's not tennis, folks, it's anarchy, born of Jankovic's unique game: She can break anyone, anytime (even Williams), but because of her so-so serve, she can be broken by anyone. anytime (especially Williams). She turns a match into Chinese handcuffs with one player at each end.
But for all the shifts of momentum and surprising plot twists, there was one riveting and satisfying constant: the struggle between Serena's bold offensive fussillades, and Jankovic's dodging, weaving counter-thrusts. How imposing was Serena? In Jankovic's presser, I suggested that it was a crazy match and wondered if Jelena herself was laughing about it. She said:
"Where? During the match? I had all these actors (Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, sitting in the photo pit) when I was returning. It was just funny. I was thinking that one of the actors was in that movie, if you know, White Men Can't Jump. I was feeling when I was playing that match, I thought, White Girls Can't Play, you know. . .I felt like that at a certain point playing against Serena. I was just, like, there's no way I can play with this girl. She's just too strong for me. But, you know, I could have done it, but she was just, you know, too good at the end."
The tense, second stage of the match ended with Jankovic winning set 2, 7-5. The crowd, recaptured, showered the women with a rousing ovation, which Williams took as a cue to go on a five-game run to kick of Part 3. But on this day, every run ended in a trip. Down 0-5, Jankovic reeled off two games. Williams responded by building a 40-love lead. Three wasted match points and a service break later, she smashed her racket on the court and hurled it at her chair. When she was reminded of the moment in her presser she feigned ignorance:
"I smashed a racquet? Oh, my God. Really? You sure it was me? "
Q (amid laughter): Looked like you.
"Oh, my gosh. Okay. Well, I guess maybe more than likely my hand must have been really oily and sweaty. That just doesn't like you said, that's just not me. God. . ."
But like all good things and train wrecks, this all had to come to an end, and unhappily for one of the combatants. That turned out to be Jankovic. When she was asked about Serena's power, she replied: "(She has) just amazing power. I felt, you know how I felt, to be honest, it's like heavyweight champion and I'm a feather champion, you know? That's how I felt. I cannot match up against her. Just too much power for me to handle, especially on a good day where she's playing well. It's amazing. I need to improve some of the things, but I will never be like that."
Jankovic sold herself short with that assessment, but keep in mind that this is a crafty young lady who knows a thing or two about sandbagging - her entire game is based on it. She almost pulled it off against Williams, and succeeded in making one of the game's most courageous and cool competitors throw her racket, scream, and go to pieces as she let one match point after another slip away before she finally converted her eighth. Contemplating her uncharacteristic struggle with nerves, Williams reflected:
"Well, at that point (fill in your match-point of choice - plenty to choose from!), you know, more or less it's me just feeling like, you know, I'm almost there. Or, God, I would hate to lose this match after being up so much. I think that's more of the emotion. Like, 'How am I going to sleep tonight? ,How many Ambien do I have in case I lose this match' type of situation? So you know, you never want to go home like that. That's really one of the worst feelings, and I think when you think about all that, then you end up putting a little more pressure on yourself."
When Williams finally did convert that seventh match point, we looked at each other almost with a measure of disbelief, wondering "Can it be? Is this thing really, really over?"
The fans staggered away, exhausted, dehydrated (the match lasted two hours and 25 minutes), and not even sure that what they watched could be called in any way "good." It sure wasn't classic, but it most definitely was interesting. They had goofy grins plastered on their faces. I'll bet half of them had so much fun that they had no idea where they'd parked the car.
As Williams and Jankovic awaited the presentation ceremony, the beaten finalist thought back to the racket smashing episode and whispered to the winner, "You really smashed that racket to pieces."
William replied, "Yeah. I had to."
I know the feeling. Pass the Ambien.
[ PS - you can check out Tom Perrotta's preview of the men's final here.]
Jankovic is the perfect foil for Serena. She just has to win some trophys to make this really interesting and fun.
Love you Ree, Ree! Congratulations.
you wrote four anon posts bashing Jelena and Pete.
That's ok, but please show some dignity and don't post as anon.
It's so obvious.