Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - '09 Picks: JJ Comes on Stronger
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'09 Picks: JJ Comes on Stronger 01/07/2009 - 4:25 PM

JjPrediction No. 3: Jelena Jankovic Will Dig Deeper, and Break Through

On the surface, this might seem like the perfect time for Jelena Jankovic to take a major nosedive. By becoming No. 1 last year, the late-blooming Serb has already surpassed any realistic expectations she might have had for herself in her earlier years on tour. This is a woman who just three seasons ago had lost 10 straight matches and begun to contemplate alternative career paths, one of which involved the study of economic theory (man, she was desperate!). While Jankovic has been hard working since—nobody travels or plays more—it's always been in the service of racking up as many wins and as much prize money as possible. Effervescent on court and jokingly philosophical in defeat, she didn’t seem to have the deeply ingrained drive or the sense of herself as the rightful top player in the world that it takes to be a tennis champion. It didn’t even seem to occur to Jankovic until late last year that she could be a Grand Slam champion or become No. 1. Now that she’s done the latter, and almost done the former, will she find the drive to stay where she is? Will she develop a sense of entitlement about her position in the game?

I visited Jankovic for a day at Bollettieri’s during the off-season for a piece that will appear in TENNIS Magazine in a couple of months. It’s easy to see that she’ll never have the stone-cold approach of Steffi Graf or the Williams sisters—JJ laughingly mock-moaned through her early morning hitting session about how she needed “a day off,” while Red Ayme, a coach at the academy, came by and said with a smile, “it wouldn’t be a normal day if Jelena wasn’t complaining.” Rather than a sign of laziness or immaturity, I saw Jankovic’s cheeky ’tude as a method that she had successfully developed for surviving the daily mind-numbing, ball-bashing, sweat-filled grind that is life at Bollettieri’s (she’s been there since she was 12). Without her humor and willingness to be distraced in a normal, human way, she likely would have burned out years ago—it’s happened to thousands of kids before and after her. More important, it was clear to me that Jankovic was working diligently both in practice and in the gym, where she was slamming medicine balls around that I could barely lift above my shoulders.

Jankovic's attitude, as far as I could tell in the course of a few hours, seemed to have been subtly transformed. She talked about her pride at becoming No. 1 and in particular at becoming the first Serbian woman to finish a season at No. 1 (not like what’s-her-face who won the French Open). She said that the latter part of 2008—from reaching the Open final to winning three tournaments in a row to clinching the top spot—had taught her a lot about herself and what she could accomplish. She regretted not putting Serena away when she had her on the ropes in the second set at Flushing, but she seemed to have accepted her mistake and was learning from it in her practices. These revolved around getting her prepared and in position for the big returns of serve that inevitably come from the top women (especially off her fairly weak delivery), and forcing her to rotate her upper body more on her forehand so she gets a little more stick on the ball. Jankovic had visibly bulked up—she said, laughing of course, that she’s “too strong” now—and it was helping on her forehand side.

I used to think that Jankovic needed to block out all of her beloved distractions if she wanted to win a Slam. I thought that not doing that indicated that she wasn’t fully committed to winning the big events. Now I’m starting to believe that the on-court smiles and stares and chatter may be essential to her sanity as a player. It will be intriguing, and the biggest question of the year on the women’ side, to see if she can keep the old effervescence, keep letting off steam, and still make herself into a major champion who can stare down the Williams sisters on a regular basis.

Judging from her late-2008 results and enthusiastic approach to her work this winter at Nick’s, I’d say Jankovic will pull off her long-awaited Slam victory in 2009. The Williamses will always be a problem; they’re too strong and powerful for her if they’re playing well. But Jankovic is the proverbial defensive cockroach who will hang around and grab her chance when either Venus or Serena offer it—her career record against the two of them is a more than respectable 8-8. As far as her Serbian rival Ivanovic, for the moment it's Jankovic who's the one with a solid training team in place behind her—it includes Justine Henin's old fitness guru, Pat Etcheberry—while Ivanovic is going through some growing, and coaching, pains.

Jankovic has a shot at either of the first two majors of the year, the Aussie and French Opens—Wimbledon seems reserved for the queen bees, the Grafs and Williamses of the world. In Melbourne, Jankovic will go in as the top seed at a Slam for the first time. Has she embraced that designation, is it a part of her identity that she won’t want to lose now? It’s hard to tell with the always-ironical and playful JJ—like I said, she’s loose and wise-cracking even when she’s working hard, and she’ll probably always be philosophical and matter-of-fact, rather than emotionally crushed, in defeat. That’s rarely been the recipe for a major champion on the women’s tour, but I think the time has come.


Posted by Pspace 01/07/2009 at 04:31 PM

Nice pick, Steve. And, great to hear that she's putting in the work. That Bollitieri trip of yours is pure gold! Thanks for the info.

Posted by Mesar 01/07/2009 at 04:35 PM

First(dont belive it)

Posted by Master Ace 01/07/2009 at 04:40 PM

Number 1 story of me is Jelena's quest to win a Slam and I agree that she will obtain her Slam and the first two are her best chance to get it.

(1) French Open suits her defensive style and her main rivals have power which is blunted on the clay.
(2) Australian Open: Before Venus made a last minute run to win Zurich and Sony Ericsson Championships, Jelena was the "hot" player after the United States Open winning 3 titles in consecutive weeks. That alone should give her the confidence to win the most unpredictable Slam BKA "Happy Slam".

Posted by Pspace 01/07/2009 at 04:49 PM

Tsonga on Ernie:

Tsonga was not dancing on Djokovic's Brisbane International grave when he admitted he was hardly surprised by little known Latvian Ernests Gulbis' 6-4 6-4 boilover.

After clinching a 6-2 7-5 first round win over Argentine Agustin Calleri Tsonga tipped world No.53 Gulbis to burst onto the world scene in 2009 just as he did in 2008.

"For me it was not really a surprise. He is going to be the man who is going to make a surprise this year," Tsonga said.

"Every match he played better and better. For me it was not a surprise to see this result."

Posted by Pspace 01/07/2009 at 04:49 PM

Sorry, wrong thread. Mods, could you delete that please.

Posted by Jake Ian 01/07/2009 at 05:53 PM

Jelena is an enigma. She's clearly got something going-on in terms of massive determination, but I wonder if Grand Slam-style "killer instinct" is part of that? Maybe, maybe not.

The odds are in her favor to at least become a One-Slam Wonder, and her best chances will be found at Roland Garros or the US Open. That smokin' backhand down-the-line has got to help bring her one Slam, you'd think. Opportunities to break-through increase this year, as I suspect the Williams sisters will finally ride off into the sunset, as far as literally coming out of nowhere to win Slams, as they've been doing.

Jelena's problem is that her game lacks a truly explosive weapon that can mentally intimidate the other top girls, though her bulldog-style defense could possibly be considered a weapon, of sorts. Improved fitness could give her more firepower this year, but she needs to peak at the Slams, find that champion's groove on the biggest stages.

She has the talent and gusto. She sure has the narcissism of a champ. The question is whether or not she will be able to put herself into more and more Slam-championship opportunities in the coming two, three years. If yes, she's bound to snag at least one.

But the women's game is SO awful right now, so disjointed and disconnected, that if Jelena doesn't make her move soon, when the tour is generally flimsy, she'll never do it.

Posted by Sher 01/07/2009 at 06:52 PM

I would be surprised if JJ doesn't win a major in '09. She's got everything going for her now, but luck will of course play it's part.

Posted by Eric 01/07/2009 at 06:52 PM

if she hauls in a major, JJ would be a one hit wonder a la iva majoli... as it is now, shes currently the marcelo rios of the womens game...

Posted by Philip 01/07/2009 at 07:14 PM

Prediction: Jelena Jankovic is going to win the Australian, and if she does, she is going to win the Grand Slam.

Posted by TennisRone 1000 01/07/2009 at 08:14 PM

Hi Steve....thanks for these New Year's predictions. It's been a fun series. I know my tennis juices are starting to churn again and I'm psyched for the new season.

JJ is more like the Michael Chang of women's tennis right now. (that's not a detraction either) You're not going to find many women scrap around the court like she does. Unfortunately, the serve has been a sore point and has been a slight liability when she faces off against top players.

It will be interesting to see if this conditioning work either build a little more core strength and helps provide more pace to her service game or perhaps provides her an extra gear to wear out the vast majority of opponents that don't move half as well as she does.

I hope she breaks through this year. I think it's impossible to handicap the women's game right now except to say that the Williams sisters are the players to beat at all tourneys that they enter 95% healthy.'s going to be a real struggle for Rog to break through and move past Pete. The top competitors are not separated by a lot right now...and there are 4 of them to contend with. You can through 3 to 4 more in to the mix at each tourney that can break through at any time. I think if he picks up one GS it will be a tremendous achievement.

Have a good evening all!

Posted by TennisRone 1000 01/07/2009 at 08:15 PM GS in 09....that is....:-)

Posted by Azhdaja 01/07/2009 at 08:32 PM

To win a Slam it takes: tools and mindset.
JJ has the tools. She can beat anyone, and she did that before.

So far her mindset was the only reason why she didn't win a major. JJ was very close to win GS twice last year at RG and USO. Even though she lost RG semi, she was in a lead against eventual champ (A.I.).

Now, since she is #1, a steady #1 that she believes she deserved it, her mindset is there.

So, yeah...very reasonable prediction. It would be surprise if she doesn't win any among next four (GS).

Posted by Azhdaja 01/07/2009 at 08:35 PM

...and yeah, two other reasons why JJ should be favourite #1 at Melbourne is weak Ivanovic and rusty Sharapova. That's a big opportunity there.

Posted by Andrew Miller 01/07/2009 at 08:42 PM

I cringe a little bit at the selection of animal/invertebrate chosen as a comparison for Jankovic. I think she is cunning but not a least not THAT bug.

JJ winning a grand slam or two this year is fine in my book! I am all for it.

If she doesn't win, then I'd like to see a Russian not named Sharapova win a grand slam, at least one of them. If that option is out, how about more grand slams for Venus and Serena? I dont care what they do in the off-season - they and Monica Seles ushered in the new era (which Justine Henin altered briefly), and they might as well usher in the next one!

Posted by VE 01/07/2009 at 09:57 PM

I like Jelena's chances in Paris, but I think Venus is the woman to watch in Melbourne.

Posted by sarge 01/07/2009 at 10:00 PM

I believe JJ will pull it off this year and get AO and/or FO. The training, the belief, the weak field, all will be a factor in getting her maiden GS. Bravo Jelena.

Posted by Arcilla Tacones/ Andrea 01/07/2009 at 10:59 PM

First off, love your sneaky humor Steve:
**She talked about her pride at becoming No. 1 and in particular at becoming the first Serbian woman to finish a season at No. 1 (not like what’s-her-face who won the French Open).**

I love JJ's personality and hope she wins a slam. The US Open would be perfect for her...grand stage and all.

Posted by jb (yeah live tennis!!) 01/08/2009 at 12:10 AM

I am totally loving the 'pick' series steve! And man, that trip to NB's academy just sounds so freakin' cool.

i had NO idea that jelena had been there since she was 12! and for heavens sake, i forgot she was contemplating bailing on the whole tennis thang... thank goodness she didn't, as she really does ad a great dimension to the womens game now.

here's hoping she takes a slam this year and gets that monkey off her back!

Posted by tellmeJO 01/08/2009 at 02:21 AM

IF Jelena wins a Slam this bet is on the French...I really just haven't seen that solid clay courter step up in the void of Henin's retirement. Jelena has won the Italian Open the last two years (I believe) and clearly is one of the best on the surface. In 08 Ivanovic was just ready to win a Slam and I feel that this will be the case for Jelena at the 09 French.

As for Melbourne...There are two major IFs...The health of Maria and Serena. I think that if either one is legitimately healthy they will be the two biggest threats for the title, then Venus, JJ, and Ivanovic (who still seems to be slumping/come on Verdasco pick her up...)

To Andrew: I think the only Russian besides Maria that really deserves to win a slam is Dementieva, poor girl just needs one good Slam to get that monkey off her back...but alas I wouldn't count on that happening in Oz this year... :(

Posted by 01/08/2009 at 02:49 AM

Venus will demolish Serena, Maria, and Jelena at Oz 2009.

Venus: The True World Number One.

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 01/08/2009 at 02:53 AM

aw i really hope your prediction is right steve. and i think you're right that she has a good chance at the aussie and roland garros rather than wimby or the uso. i'd personally like to see jankovic and safina win a slam each this season, but it may be wishful thinking on my part.

Posted by Pica_pica (supports JJ) 01/08/2009 at 04:17 AM

I believe JJ will reign for a long time and win slams.
Ajde Jelena! =)

Posted by ava 01/08/2009 at 07:40 AM

I hope there will be something about Rafa's year the following days.
I think its too premature to be making any predictions about the year in ATP but I have high hopes for Rafa and I hope he won't let me down.

Posted by tree 01/08/2009 at 08:37 AM

Serena will demolish Venus, Maria, and Jelena at Oz 2009.

Serena and Venus are, The True World Number One.

Posted by Melissa 01/08/2009 at 10:58 AM

Just like her #1 ranking, JJ will only win a Grand Slam if all the other Top 5 players are either retired, injured, or out before the final. She only had to play 6 matches against the Top 5 last year and only managed 1 win against Dementieva (1-5). She just got trounced today by 28 year old Venus and that "nose dive" is coming indeed lol !

Posted by Steve 01/08/2009 at 12:06 PM

cockroach in that she's so hard to kill in a rally. that's all. maybe not the most pleasant term, but if you're going to bother commenting, please try to address more than one word, or typo, of a post.

Posted by frances 01/08/2009 at 12:12 PM

Oh yeah, right. Who is she going to beat win OZ in a couple of weeks? Serena? Venus? Ivanovic? LMAO. It's a nice story. But I don't think so. Venus (just did it a few hours ago) and Serena will skin the hide off of her.

Posted by iting 01/08/2009 at 01:37 PM

I remember Sharapova also lost to Venus in Hong Kong last year and then she went on to win the Australian Open. I somehow doubt JJ is capable of doing the same, though.

Posted by jem 01/08/2009 at 02:15 PM

For those who are looking for a good site to watch tennis (and basketball and hockey): I have been thrilled with the coverage and quality of the matches from DOHA at I don't know if it makes any difference, but, I live in Canada.


Posted by Nick E 01/08/2009 at 02:38 PM

Hopefully the bulking up will help her serve, which I think would help her immensely. I'd love to see stats, but she seemed like she could won at least twice as much return games last year as anybody else - if she could beef up her serve and become a little harder to break, she'd be a lot tougher to beat.

Posted by C Note (AnaFer: totes adorbs) 01/08/2009 at 07:06 PM

Nice post, Steve. I think you captured JJ's psychology perfectly. To me her last two years have come from this fear that at any moment it could all be taken away from her, i.e. she could just go on another 10 match losing streak at any time and retire. So she was so happy just to play and "be there". It was essentially a two year money grab.

Now something's clicked in her brain and she's putting herself out there and actually being ambitious. We'll see if she can get it done. Maybe she'll have a "lucky two weeks" and actually win one of these things.

Posted by Iky4lyf 01/08/2009 at 07:17 PM

Well according to sources jj serv bare had pace on them and venus was hitting powerful groundstrokes throught out the match. I dont see jj winning AO. As she will most likely have to contend with venus or serena in her draw and serena seems to be winning AO every second year. My bets are a all williams showdown with venus finally winning the aussie slam....

Posted by joe 01/08/2009 at 09:00 PM

Venus just humiliated the world "#1"! Ha!

Posted by ncot 01/08/2009 at 09:14 PM

too bad for jj. this will be venus's year, i think. hehehe

Posted by 01/09/2009 at 04:32 AM

Venus: The True World Number One!

Posted by Bobby 01/09/2009 at 10:30 AM

Andrew Miller, I like what you said about the Williams sisters having ushered in one era and possibly ushering in another. It's amazing, isn't it? If not the Williams sisters (especially Venus -- I'm hoping she'll win some other than Wimbledon this year), I'd also love to see a different Russian win a Grand Slam, and my vote goes to Dementieva. She works hard and seems nice enough... and oh yeah, she plays well! :)

Posted by trevon 01/09/2009 at 05:19 PM

JJ is the modern day kim. everyone said kin was too nice to win a slam and she did i think jj could win 3 or more slams. in my opinion she will be in the game far longer than kim it seems less of a burden for hor.

Posted by Truthofthematter 01/09/2009 at 11:22 PM

Venus, Serena or Dementieva 2009 Slams Champs. Go for Girls!

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