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Actually, it is a Laughing Matter 12/14/2009 - 1:14 PM

92584084 by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. A few minutes ago, I received an email from my pal Bart Lagae, a Belgian reporter, who had a news flash: Yanina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse have been cleared to continue playing while they appeal the suspensions levied against them for failing to be available for doping tests. The Tennis.com home page will keep you updated.

On to happier subjects:

While down at Nick Bollettieri's late last week, I had a chance to visit with Jelena Jankovic, during her shade-under-intense practice session with one of the young guns at the academy, a former University of Mississippi player, Robby Poole. These days, top women can hold their own against a player of Poole's caliber, at least as long as serving and returning are left out of the equation. Watching the two of them screw around playing tiebreakers (both players began each point by popping a ball into play from the baseline) reminded me just how far women's tennis has come since Chris Evert ruled the roost and puffballs floated in the air as often as sharply hit forehand or backhands pierced it.

I've always enjoyed watching Jelena play, and seeing her practice is in some ways more illuminating than watching a proper match, where all that tension and execute-or-die mandates are in play. Somehow, most players (Roger Federer is one of the outstanding exceptions) are visibly looser, more relaxed, downright happier when they're practicing.They sometimes go for wild shots and laugh when they miss; they make faces they wouldn't dare show to opponents. In matches, a player tries to channel the psyche of an assassin; in practice, she channels the spirit of a yellow Labrador retriever puppy.

Typical practice garb is more athletic than the stuff most players wear in order to keep those endorsement checks coming. Jelena wore mid-calf black running tights, and a crisp, clean, long-sleeved quarter-zip top of white - in whatever they call that latest miracle fabric that promises to keep you from getting sweaty even in a sauna. When did "wicking" become a spiritual state otherwise attainable only by following certain rituals that involve chanting? 

Jelena wasn't wearing make-up, and her dark pony tail poked pertly from the back of her trucker's cap. This girl has great legs, and the painted-on running tights emphasized their smooth but unmistakeably athletic curves. The overall look amounted to no-nonsense sporty, in an elegant way.

I chatted with Jelena during those rest minutes when the players sat sipping Gatorade under unseasonably cool, cloudy skies. She told me that her 2009 was full of unexpected personal distractions, including surgery for her mother Snezana, and the death of a favorite grandmother. "Those problems made me realize I didn't have to take everything, including my tennis, so seriously. You don't have to put yourself under so much pressure on the court. It's better just to have fun, and appreciate the good things in life. You can do what you want - play, laugh, have fun. Live your life, because your health is the most important thing."

Of course, it was something like a health issue that helped account for the horrible start Jankovic had in 2009. I was at Nick's academy at about the same time last year, when Jelena was fresh off a rigorous off-season strength-building regimen adminstered by Pat Etcheberry. The result of that well-intended desire to prepare for a strong defense of her No. 1 ranking was, basically, a disaster. "I gained ten kilos," Jelena told me, "That's about 20 pounds. I wasn't fat, because it didn't show so much - muscle is heavier than fat. But it made me feel uncomfortable, I felt physically restricted and I couldn't move as freely as I wanted. It was something new to me, I never was so heavy before."

For a player like Jankovic, who relies on her athletic ability, that physical change was a kiss of death - although there's certainly room to argue that on many occasions last year (the Australian Open was a great example), it was Jankovic's mind and heart that let her down, not her body. But perhaps those nasty switches on her competitive motherboard were flicked by the discomfort she felt. It's a tricky subject, for sure.

"Sometimes you try, you give your best and things don't go like you expect," she said. "That happens. But it's still important to try new things, to try to improve. If it doesn't work, so what? The main thing is to give your best."

Although Jankovic's first half of 2009 was disappointing, she was encourged by the way her game came around during the summer at Cincinnati and at times in the fall. She felt, at the end of the WTA tour championships in Dough-ha, that she had something to build on. "It's important to know that if you fail, you can come back and become a champion again. When you're going up and winning, it's easy. You don't have a care in the world. But that is just the easy part of your career. Right now, I'm proud about how I went down, and then I made myself go back up."

Jankovic is well-positioned to make a big move early in 2010, because she has few ranking points to defend. She says it doesn't mean very much to her. "I want always to make the little steps to get better, and not think about things like rankings and points.  I'm having fun in practice and just trying to to back to basics and add some little things that make will make me better. Every player has to learn to do what's right for herself and her game."

The new year will present opportunities, but unusual challenges as well. The WTA is without a dominant player at the moment, so there's room for the bold and talented to operate. But with former Grand Slam champions returning to the game (Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin), the home stretch at any major might find half-a-dozen ponies running flank-to-flank. "We have some very good tennis players and some very strong athletes," says the woman who's an appealing combination of both. "I think the year is going to be very exciting."

Jelena is undecided about doubles, and has no plans to play mixed. What, did she have enough of the Jamie Murray show, I wondered?

Jelena laughed: "It was enough. I am a Wimbledon champion now (in mixed, with Murray) and I think I am retired. So I can say I am always the champion forever, because nobody took away my title."

One of the nicer things about Jankovic is that she laughs more easily and freely than any woman on the tour; it's unusual, when you consider that the countdown to when Henin drops her first giggle or an unlikely guffaw is now entering something like it's 27th year. You can forgive a player who laughs a lot a great deal, including a six-month bout of competitive inadequacy. And the ability to laugh can be a great ally in the battle to turn back the tide of self-bashing and scab-picking. 

As we walked away from the practice court, Jankovic boasted, in a mock serious tone: "My goal in 2010 is to start fast and finish strong." She laughed at the cliche, but repeated it, forcefully, "Start fast, finish strong. That will be my motto."

It was hard to tell whether she was serious or not. But in any event you heard it here first.


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Posted by Nic 12/15/2009 at 09:44 AM

A Jelena article! And a nice one at that. Yay! I'm thinking back to a really lovely optimistic post from Pete during the US hardcourt season yonks ago.

Wickmayer still can't play AO says ITF?
http://tinyurl.com/yck98bl

Posted by Lucia Turner 12/15/2009 at 10:19 AM

Jelena is a great player, one of the bes tans very charismatic..cant wait for 2010!!!!

Posted by Tfactor 12/15/2009 at 10:32 AM

Hello everyone in the new TW!
This quote by Sydney J Harris came to mind as I was reading the various reactions to the site changes:
“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better”

I’m supposed to be taking a break from posting and concentrate on getting things done at the office and at home but when I saw the title of Pete’s thread I actually thought he was thinking of Rafa’s outfit and couldn’t help but check it out :)

Reading some of the comments I felt I had to recap Rafa’s 2009. It’s good to keep things in perspective and remember he’s never been dominant on hard court and he didn’t get a chance to play on grass in 2009 due to injuries.
Like in 2008 Rafa led most of the Return of Service stats this year:
Points won when returning 2nd serve
Break Points Converted
Return Games Won
He was also tied for the lead in 2nd serve Points Won
(http://www.atpworldtour.com/Rankings/MatchFacts.aspx)

Also a comparison of his results in 2008 and 2009 (in chronological order) show his year, injuries aside, was pretty respectable.
---------------------------Year-------
Tournament------ 08----------09
AO -------------------S------------W
Rotterdam--------Rd16---------S
Dubai----------------Q------------DNP
Indian Wells--------S------------W
Miami----------------F------------Q
Monte Carlo-------W-----------W
Barcelona----------W-----------W
Rome--------------Rd32---------W
Hamburg-----------W------------F--------Madrid
RG-------------------W------------4Rd
Queens------------W------------DNP
Wimbledon-------W------------DNP
Canada-------------W------------Q
Cincinnati----------S-------------S
USO-----------------S--------------S
Madrid-------------S--------------F-------Shanghai
Paris----------------Q-------------S
YEC----------------DNP-----------RR

Here is hoping he doesn’t get sidelined by injuries in 2010 (or arrested by the Fashion Police) :-)

Posted by Master Ace 12/15/2009 at 10:48 AM

"Masha's schedule for the first half of 2010 (from her site):

Thailand
Hong Kong
AO
Memphis
Indian Wells
Miami
Charleston
Marid
RG
Birmingham
W"

Sokol,
Thanks for posting Maria's schedule. With her not being part of Roadmap,this is a very good schedule for her as she is playing only 2 red clay events(Madrid and French Open)which is her weakest surface and also playing on green(Charleston) to adjust from hardcourts to clay slowly.

Posted by Jamaica Karen 12/15/2009 at 10:55 AM

oh that song had me in stitches. Hilarious. I love it. Morning All

Posted by Caroline 12/15/2009 at 01:39 PM

Congratulations to Stan the Man! He and the concubine were married on 12th December in Lausanne.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 12/15/2009 at 01:47 PM

Fuzzy you made my day with that ditty or song or poem

You are the male version of Miss Highpockets in a crazy way

Good Morning Everyone

Posted by Nic 12/15/2009 at 02:35 PM

MA, I didn't see this earlier. I assume this is your question on the Road Map in El Jon's mailbag? Nicely done :)

http://tinyurl.com/yc7t8l4

Posted by Robert in Texas 12/15/2009 at 03:02 PM

Apropos of nothing, I just noticed that Etienne de Villiers is now running the new Virgin Formula 1 team. He is referred to as "vastly experienced". The article makes mention of a few of his past jobs (Disney, etc.) while making no mention of the ATP.

Posted by Master Ace 12/15/2009 at 04:08 PM

Nic,
Indeed, that was my question to Stacey on Jon's mailbag. Thought her response was very interesting but I still heard from fans,like TWibe, and some players that they thought the Premier 5 and Mandatories were too close. Also, Elena complained about fatigue when she said that she did not have enough rest from USO to Beijing. Do not forget that she lost in the 2nd round to Melanie.

Posted by rg.nadal 12/16/2009 at 05:46 AM

Hello all! How are you guys doing today?

Posted by Master Ace 12/16/2009 at 07:49 AM

Pete,
Monday entry about Jelena is still the blog entry on the home page instead of the one done yesterday. Please take a look.

Posted by Game Lover 12/16/2009 at 09:27 AM

Good morning Rg.nadal!

Some of us are playing tennis, to answer your question; how about you?

Posted by The Fan Child 12/16/2009 at 01:07 PM

For Jelena, it's about the serve. I read a piece about Fabrice Santoro taking 3 months off to work only on the serve in the middle of his career.

I think this would benefit Jankovic, and a few others on the Woman's tour. She's going to stick in the top 10 with that baseline game, but she'll be on a wild ride again because she can't really consolidate often enough. With her height and strength - why is she not spending all her time with the Serve Doctor at Bollettieri? Imagine how tough it would be to play her if she could get some free points off the first serve and not just dump in the lollipop for the 2nd serve...

Posted by HUH 12/16/2009 at 11:49 PM

Who is the serve doctor? There has never, ever been anyone come out of Bollettieri's that was considered a big server, ever. If a serve doctor exist he isn't there.

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