Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - IW: The Trouble with JJ
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IW: The Trouble with JJ 03/15/2009 - 2:17 PM

JjIt's time to start asking the obvious: What's happened to Jelena Jankovic this year? You can understand a couple of early season losses, as well as the difficulty of living up to being No. 1 for the first time in Australia. You can even understand a loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a strong young player who JJ had never faced before (love that swinging volley, eh?). What's harder to get is the way she played and looked during this loss. Jankovic was listless, a step behind, her famously smooth footwork now a lurch and a lunge. She was even unsure of herself when she got a good look at a ball, guiding it toward the corners rather than belting it with abandon.

In her presser afterward, Jankovic herself began by saying she didn't know what the trouble was, then went about putting her finger on the problem. "You know, my whole concept of the game is off," she said. "especially during the points. I don't feel some of my shots that were my weapons before."

What began as a physical issue in January, when her increased muscle and weight slowed her down, has moved into her head—that, as they say, is not good. It will be more complicated now for her to find her old form than it would have been if she simply needed to lose a little muscle mass. Jankovic looked slimmer to me yesterday than she did in the off-season, but it only served to make her seem vulnerable against the powerful 17-year-old Pavyluchenkova, who is noticeably taller than when I saw her at last year's Wimbledon.

Jankovic was defensive as always, but this time there was no punch in her counter-punch. Where in the past she's answered hard-hit shots with wrong-footing backhands down the line, this time she was caught by those same shots and forced to loft up desperation stab lobs. JJ was also tentative when she was on the offensive, seeming to have no clue how she was supposed to construct a point—no "concept," as she put it.

She's been worse off before, as my friend Doug Robson of USA Today pointed out yesterday, when she lost 10 straight matches to start the year a few seasons ago. While JJ has been a model of consistency recently, she does have slumps and plateaus in her. In the past, she's found her way out of them, and I think she's too talented and driven not to do it again. Yesterday I wondered about the emphasis in modern tennis on physical work had gone too far. Jankovic, who said she "trusted the fitness" work that her trainer Pat Etcheberry had her do in the off-season, may be a cautionary tale—at heart, her game is about quickness and counterpunching and great court sense; you mess with the balance of those natural talents at your peril when you try to add physical power to the mix. Etcheberry knows his business, but he also trained Justine Henin to the point of exhaustion a few years ago.

To start 2009, I asked whether now was the time for a "major nosedive" by Jankovic. I thought maybe she'd gone as far as her ambition and self-conception would take her, but I also thought that her ambition had been upgraded when she became No. 1, and that she would avoid a letdown through hard work. Through no fault of her own, that hard work led her away from her strengths as a player and has left her wondering what she ever did well.

For now, Jankovic remains a complicated figure at a complicated moment. She trudged into her late-night, sparsely attended presser yesterday with a sad face. But she couldn't help a little black humor when the transcriber had trouble setting up her machine. "Don't worry, there isn't much to talk about," she moaned with a smile. "I hope it doesn't work."

By the end of the interview, JJ, a well of deep and varied emotions, had spun around 180 degrees. She was asked whether she had had "high hopes" coming to the BNP Paribas. The questions came from a reporter with an empathetic, rather than interrogative, tone of voice. It seemed to draw out those deep emotions and remind Jankovic of the expectations she had for this season only a few months ago. For once, Jankovic had nothing to say; she couldn't cover her disappointment with black humor. She had tears in her eyes.


Posted by torquewip 03/15/2009 at 02:29 PM

none of the Number 1's in the female game have been able to assert themselves in the past couple of years. Not since Henin retired.

Posted by crazyone 03/15/2009 at 02:38 PM

I'm not a JJ fan at all, but this state of affairs is saddening to me, because this is someone who put in a lot of hard work and has seen her game go totally south...I hope it works out over the long run.

Posted by VE 03/15/2009 at 02:40 PM

This is really sad to see for Jelena, not only a talented player, but such a likable character. I hope she figures it out, but as you said it's not looking good.

Posted by Christopher 03/15/2009 at 02:57 PM

I also wonder about the tendency towards emphasizing fitness when the latter is seen to essentially equal bulking up. It seems to me that speed will always matter more than upper body muscle mass in tennis. As players get older, the issue is losing a step, not losing the ability to hit the ball hard. Likewise, players seem to really benefit from new fitness regimes when those moves result in losing weight, as with Andre some years ago and even Roddick more recently.

I hope JJ finds a balance that works for her. I've never been a big fan, but having a really good grinder in the mix adds something to the game and fills an important niche near the top. It can keep the blasters honest if done well and she did it well at times.

Posted by sonya 03/15/2009 at 02:58 PM

Thank you for this Steve. I just don't know what to think anymore. What did she add all that weight for? If you can't play your natural game anymore, it's a waste of energy. I'm still hoping that her team will figure out a way to work around it, and she'll have better results later in the season.

Posted by ER 03/15/2009 at 03:03 PM

JJ has been overworked!! I've noticed this since the Aussie Open. I think she's going what Justine went, when Pat was her trainer!! To me she was just fine fitness wise. I don't understand why she wanted to add muscle?? She's the most fit player on tour!! In my opinion she needed to work a little more on her game, not her fitness. If she did that, then she would of won titles this year already!! I hope she gets it together again. I think its going to take her some time!!

Posted by 03/15/2009 at 03:20 PM

I was really hoping that with the void of a dominant player in women's tennis that JJ would step up this year. She's certainly a likeable player. I can't help but wonder if all the emphasis on fitness is fatiguing the human body beyond what it was designed to handle though I do agree that there are cases in which improved fitness has boosted many a career. I wish JJ the best in Miami.

Posted by Navin Israni 03/15/2009 at 03:47 PM

i think she went the wrong way perhaps.she wanted to prevent i injuries..she said after the US Open Final last year that she went with some kind of injury in the remaining 3 slams.but in US Op0en she said she had no injury at all n so reached the perhaps she felt like preventing injuries could make her more successful.she thought adding muscle would mean preventing injuries.what has happened to her.either she is injured and hiding it all coz she wants to get rid of her "Drama Queen" tag.or there is something seriously wrong in her personal life.may be with her boy friend...whatever it should end ASAP..coz even i love watching her play..!!

Posted by Ku 03/15/2009 at 04:04 PM

The women's game has become all mental now. They seem afraid of being at the top, as opposed to rising up to the challenge. Even though JJ strikes me as more courageous than most, she also tends to cower when it's there for the taking. That makes the game even more interesting for me.

Posted by Ikie 03/15/2009 at 04:29 PM

The next person to bring up henin is in serious need of help my gosh... Aint it the same dominant henin that got two bagels 1 by maria in AO and 1 by serena in Berlin? Please can we stop deluding ourselves that henin was a great champion as we all know back in 02 and 03 she hardly stood a chance against the WS... Poor JJ has gone and destroyed her game by bulking up ... What a shame

Posted by Ikie 03/15/2009 at 04:30 PM

Regarding the serena bagel it was in miami my bad

Posted by Master Ace 03/15/2009 at 04:32 PM

My theory on why Jelena Jankovic is off to slow start back on 2/18(page 8)

"Reason I think Jelena Jankovic(9-3) is not off to a good start for her(in no certain order):

(1) When she won 3 titles(Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow) in a row last fall along with making a finalist appearance at United States Open vaulted her to number 1, she said that was her goal to get there at the end of 2008 and it was more important than Slams. She said Slams is for players who was hot for two weeks. Then, once she lost at Australian Open, she said that number 1 was not that important but how you finish. When Jelena got to number 1, pressure started to build up where she needed to win a Slam to validate that position. Also, it did not help her case that Roger Federer(whether right or wrong) said something about hoping a person getting to number 1 without winning a Slam. Again, after she lost number 1, she finally said something to Roger via media(whether right or wrong) to mind his "personal business". When her team said Venus never ended the season as number 1, that probably did not go over well with the Williams Sisters even though they would not let the media know.
Opinion: Jelena mental frame of mind is not good dealing with being number 1 going for her first career Slam and having a target on her back for other players to aim for.
(2)After Doha, she changed her regular off season routine by going to Mexico around November to get ready for Australia by training in high altitude and going to Bradenton, Florida. Result was gaining extra mass to contend with the power hitters on the WTA. Ricardo Sanchez probably told her to get the extra mass if she wants to hang in with the power hitters and get the elusive Slam.
Opinion: This may have slowed down her foundation of speed and movement to track balls down. I think she needed to work with tennis related issues(ie- putting more km on her serve so she can win easy points). She may eventually adjust to the mass she put on but it may be too late in her career
(3)Jelena was part of a week long exo in Hong Kong to get some matches in but got sick when she arrived. It could have been changing to different climates in Mexico, Florida, and Hong Kong which her immune system could have been weakened.
Opinion: Her illness took some much needed matches in peak condition from her as she is a rhythm player
(4)In her losses so far, her opponent(Bartoli, Mauresmo, and Kanepi) has played attacking tennis which put Jelena out of her comfort zone once she got behind forcing her to go for extra which either led to hitting shots errantly or hitting the ball into her opponent comfort zone."

Since that post on Peter's blog:
Per last night, I could add Pavlyuchenkova to the list on number 4. Someone mentioned a new clothing deal that Jelena signed this year and that may have played a role in the slow start but at this point of the year, she should have adjusted to her new outfits and shoes. If Jelena is still performing below expectations after the French Open, I believe this subject will be revisited.

Posted by luxsword 03/15/2009 at 04:35 PM

Very interesting read.

Posted by Andrew Broad 03/15/2009 at 04:53 PM

Please do not use the term "stab lobs". After the stabbing of Monica Seles, and the rise of knife-crime in general, it's in terrible taste.

Posted by M-life 03/15/2009 at 05:41 PM


Oh my God!!!??? Do you know what did she eat for breakfast this morning?

Sonya- Where did you see Pat-errrr, Master Ace's Photo??? I gotta see it.

Posted by mw 03/15/2009 at 05:57 PM

JJ's tears pretty much sums up her play. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon. Most of the women, (and Federer) cry too much for my taste....

Posted by Diane 03/15/2009 at 06:54 PM

I am amazed that Etcheberry would pull this stunt again after what happened with Henin. I feel really bad for Jelena, who is one of my very favorite players. All she needed was a better serve, and instead, they turned her into the Hulk.

Posted by Christopher 03/15/2009 at 07:45 PM

Andrew Broad-- Please tell me you're joking! Must we also stop talking about "slice" backhands, players taking a big "cut" at the ball, a "killer" serve, an overhead "smash" or any other common word that has violent connotations in entirely different contexts? At least Rafa has decided to wear sleeves so that we're not offended by his guns :)

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/15/2009 at 07:48 PM

Hi M-life, nice to see you back posting.Poor JJ, that is all I have to say. Go Caro, Scandinavia's#1

Posted by sonya 03/15/2009 at 08:14 PM

M-life, on the Deuce Club post on Friday.

Posted by Master Ace 03/15/2009 at 08:19 PM

Photo is on Pete's blog. The Deuce Club 3.13 as I saw the United States play Switzerland last weekend.

Posted by Ruth 03/15/2009 at 10:36 PM

Two minor corrections, if I may:
The first commenter on this thread says that the WTS players haven't asserted themselves since Henin retired "a couple years ago," but Henin's last torney was Berlin, less than a year ago!!! Yes, really.

Another commenter states that there's no dominant player in the WTA. Excuse me, but there's player who is the current holder of two of the Slam titles and who is ranked #1 based on 52 weeks of competition. I'd call that "dominant."

Posted by Ruth 03/15/2009 at 10:46 PM

Two corrections of my own post: WTA, not WTS and tourney,not torney. :)

In a comment on TW, I stated that I believed that in a year or sooner, I expect JJ either to reap the benefits of her special training during the off-season or to work through any problems that the training (and the added muscle) may have caused. I really believe this, and I certainly hope that I'm right.

Posted by dh 03/15/2009 at 10:57 PM

Seems to me this fitness training is much more about building muscle mass and that is causing problems for Jelena. At the AO she looed markedly bigger, but slower and not necessarily stronger. Murray has also added significant muscle mass and he is suffereing from an un-named virus. As you mentioned Justine Henin worked with Pat Etcheberry a few years ago and she also suffered from a debilitating virus after that period in her life and was gone for almost a yr. Doesn't seem healthy for these athletes to push their bodies to points that are not appropriate to their natural physique.

Posted by Luke 03/15/2009 at 11:02 PM

I think they changed JJ's game all wrong. She didn't need more strength, she just needed more aggression and better technique on the serve. You could tell from her match with Serene at US Open that she could win but just needed to go for it more at the critical points. I hope she's finding her game again soon because she's so fun to watch and to listen.

Posted by shamone 03/16/2009 at 01:28 AM

Oy Vey. It's March. The woman is not dead. Her games is going places.
We'll see.

Posted by booboo 03/16/2009 at 02:31 AM

this is why i want safina to become number one after indian wells.. cause as soon as she becomes number one she will go crashing down to and the flood gates will open for venus to become #2 behind serenas #1

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. Jelena J for Indian Wells 2009!!! 03/16/2009 at 02:32 AM

> But she couldn't help a little black humor when the transcriber had trouble setting up her machine. "Don't worry, there isn't much to talk about," she moaned with a smile. "I hope it doesn't work."

Why I love her so much, sigh.

I still hope this isn't permanent and she can readjust.

Posted by Pica_pica (I don't know how much expectation I should put on Nole) 03/16/2009 at 03:54 AM

Oh dear...I'm so sad to hear about her disappointment...

Posted by ThaCarter78 03/16/2009 at 08:01 AM


First, Henin had her moments, however; they came on when Venus and Serena were on a spiral due to injury and family death. Henin couldn't beat Venus at all. Henin was better matched with Serena, but couldn't beat Serena if Serena was playing well. Enough said.

Look at the head to head between Venus and Henin (7-2) I think. C'mon.

It's funny to see how much sympathy is given to Jelena, but when the Williams sisters were going through their challenges, there was nothing but harsh words and critics.

Each player knows what is best for them and they need to take ownership of that.

Suck it up and fix it.

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/16/2009 at 08:10 AM

Carter, I agree with the part about JJ, but totally disagree with the part on Justine, she beat both Williamses back to back at the USO. Yes, she had a poor record against them in the begining but that was years ago, and in their recent matches, Justine was their equal. She knocked Serena out of 3 GS, FO, Wimbledon and USO, all in the quarters. I don't think you can look at matches from 3-4 years ago and say Venus was now better. Justine improved greatly and could take them on and win. Serena said it best herself, "she gave me a lot of trouble." She sure did. I would agree that people are more sympathetic toward JJ and I'm not sure she deserve this due to some of her behavior on court. I'm talking about the faking injuries, the stop watch incident with Venus and her trying to steal Serena's moment at the USO as well as actually stealing Sofia's massage. Go Caro, Scandinavia's#1!

Posted by amarka 03/16/2009 at 09:14 AM

Both Serena and Venus were better than Justine as their head-to-head records show! Justine beat Serena in 3gs in 2007 and Venus in one. She is still 6-7 against Serena (with Serena winning their last meeting) and 2-7 against Venus (Henin winning the last meeting). In 2006 Henin got to four major finals, LOST THREE (cowardly quitting one). In won 2007(her so-called most dominant year),she won FO, USO and YEC and went on to be soundly beaten by Sharapova AO 2008. She was then soundly beaten by Serena in Miami and Safina in Berlin before cowardly quitting as she has been known to do in the past! Saying there is no dominant player since Henin is but a joke! Henin has won back-to-back slam ONCE (2003 USO and 2004 AO)! Venus, TWICE (2000 W & uso, 2001 W & USO). Serena FOUR TIMES (2002 FO & W, USO, 2003 AO; 2008 USO & 2009 AO) You all called Hingis, Davenport and Clijsters dominant when all they were winning were the minor events! Serena and Venus are currently the most donimant players on tour, they have won the last three majors and YEC! IT IS FOR THAT REASON THEY HAVE AND ARE STILL MAKING BIGGER NEWS THAN indian wells!
All this fitness fiasco with the women on the WTA is simply to compete with not Justine but the WILLIAMS SISTERS!

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/16/2009 at 09:37 AM

Amarka, you're making the mistake of looking at an H2H that include matches almost 5 years old when you look at Venus H2H against Justine. After her training with fitness trainer, Pat Etchelberry, Justine gained more power and muscle, and was better able to compete and beat the Williamses. I think it's quite telling that Serena only made it to the quarters of 3 slams in which she was knocked out by the great Justine. After Justine retired, Serena won two slams and made it to the final of Wimbledon. Curious don't you think? To call Justine a quitter doesn't deserve comment because it is simply BS. Everyone who saw her fight against Serena at the FO which she won, and against Capriati knows was a great fighter she was. As BJK said, "Pound for pound, she was the best of her era." Go Justine!

Posted by jerelyn 03/16/2009 at 10:00 AM

its really very saddening to see being a big fan of JJ, because she has a unique game, rather than the boring and common powerstyle of many players..

i think she should just fire pat etcheberry already..she doesnt need more power to her game..prove is she defeated dozens of power players with her amazing speed..what she just needs to do is to improve her serve and learn how to hold serve..

just hope that she can play like her usual self really soon..stupid etcheberry!!!!

Posted by ThaCarter78 03/16/2009 at 10:27 AM

History is History. History gives you an indication of trends. The trend is Justine couldn't consistently beat Venus. Yes she has beaten her twice before, but out of 9 attempts. It's unfortunate that they didn't get to play more recent matches or that Justine isn't still playing to better gauge, but if Justine quits, you have to base your opinion on facts (history).

BTW, at the US Open, Venus was exhausted and it showed. If she would have been fresh, Justine would have lost that match as well. But Justine won, she played well and she got the win. No excuses, but that was only her 2nd time beating Venus. Just like Jennifer Capriati couldn't beat Venus, but had a better matching against Serena.

Justine improved greatly while the WS were struggling. Now that they are not struggling and have found their mojo, Justine isn't around because she quit.

The other women on tour are getting bigger because they cannot match the power of the WS. They have no choice. Especially when they are playing well. It's overwhelming.

Even the power hitters on tour cannot hit with the WS (Safina, Ana, etc)

Posted by mick1303 03/16/2009 at 10:54 AM

Serena would have been dominant, if she was a constant presence on tour. If she plays only in Slams and Miami - it is just not enough. It will look great on her resume, because slams is a measure of a career. But dominant here and now requires competing on a constant basis. WS fans invented the term "point-chaser" to ridicule accomplishments of other player, while they just do what they supposed to do - play tennis all-year-round.

Posted by nick 03/16/2009 at 10:57 AM

Pavluchenkova could very well could be one time wonder. One match means nothing. get to the top and try to stay there. JJ has done it

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 03/16/2009 at 12:04 PM

Nice, Steve. And I feel for JJ.

" mess with the balance of those natural talents at your peril..."

That little snippet is what makes the game so difficult. You cannot make a certain type of polayer into something else without deconstructing the player you began with. I think, to a certain extent, this happened to Hewitt. It certainly happened to Michael Chang, who experimented with lots of things to give his game more pop.

But it can also happen to the most talented of players. Sampras spent a couple of seasons working with Higueras, a great coach, no doubt, working to develop his stamina and turn his backhand into a weapon so that he could win the French.

It failed. He was never able to get the kind of backhand required, and in fact began looking in poor form as he stood back and tried to his bog topspin backhand returns of serve. When he finally went back to Annacone and back to slicing his backhand more and chipping and charging, he won his last two Slams.

There's a certain structurl integrity to the clay a potter chooses to work with, and that structure limits what the potter can do with that raw stuff on the wheel. Tennis players are like that clay.

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/16/2009 at 12:52 PM

I would disagree with the post at 10:54, there have been clearly point chasers like Jankovic in the WTA. This isn't made up by the Williamses fans, this is a fact. These are players who rely on quantity vs quality because unlike the Williamses and Sharapova, they clearly can't win a slam. So instead they play in every tourney, adding up points without achieving the highest goal in tennis which is to win a slam. Federer said it best, that players like Jankovic and Murray need to win a slam when they get to be number l. You can disagree with Roger, but he should know the importance of the slam vs point chasers. I totally agree with Roger. I also disagree about Serena's domination, and I believe that she will go down in history has the greatest player of her era, which she clearly deserves. For all the talk of the domination of the Russians, Serena has a great record against them all, including a 6-3 record against their best, Sharapova, who hasn't beaten Serena in over four years. So much for the so called Russian domination. Serena is one of only five women to ever hold all four GS at the same time. This is an achievment that is extremely rare in tennis. I see no blemish on her resume. I'm a huge fan of Justine, but I would agree that Serena was the better player based on her outstanding credentials. Go Caro, Scandinavia's#1!

Posted by Maria 03/16/2009 at 01:17 PM

How in the world are we supposed to know how JJ looked like when she played this or any other matches if Tennis Channel stopped showing any WTA matches????? Is there a problem between Tennis Channel and WTA? or is it just sex discrimination? We'd love to see for ourselves but, alas, do not have such a priviledge!

Posted by pmgm 03/16/2009 at 05:15 PM

I just don't get the sunny personality thing that the broadcasters and manyof her fans talk about. I think she is one of the most surly players on tour and I have disliked her since she fast served Venus as Wimbledon, turned sour when the umpire wouldn't call a ball at the US Open, then had her camp use a stop watch to time the time between Venus's serves at one of the tournaments at the end of last season. I've always thought that her talking to her camp and fans throughout her matches annoying. But when she closed her eyes and swung her racket at the Australian Open when Bartoli was handing her butt to her, I decided that anyone who beat her is my favorite.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 03/16/2009 at 06:38 PM


I hear you. I think JJ can be, at times, what is often referred to as a b**ch. Or prima donna. Is there a difference?

Posted by anon 03/19/2009 at 01:44 PM

Why is it that when people analyze Williams' game - when they win, it is because they are good, and when they lose, it is because they are exausted, not playing well, had a situation and so on.
Why don't you disect their wins equally?
The other players, when they lose to Williamses, also may be exausted, have lack of motivation and so on..

O wait, I know the answer to that questions: patriotic bias, that's why.

Posted by athan 03/20/2009 at 12:59 AM

This is what I loved about Martina Hingis. Even if her tactical/soft game is being eaten alive by her muscle powered WTA amazon counterparts, she preferred to play her own game. Look at the result. Yeah, yeah, zero grand slam since. But she stood out and still is the icon for the mental part of tennis. Jankovic should have stucked to her game. I was really rooting for her , even againts all odds, that with some minor tweaks and proper scheduling, her backboard game could win her a slam and prove that games other than force and power still have a place at the WTA tour. She had the potential, she's almost there. Now, I hope what you are all saying is not true - that she has bulked up and destroyed her body/game. Pity. She was more focused on winning than playing her game. Unlike Martina, who loved the way she played and stucked to it. No matter what. That's what I call true passion for the game and not just for the trophies.

Posted by anon 03/20/2009 at 11:27 PM

Athan, if I may - your post is surely well intended, but youmake JJ sound look like she is someone who doesn't like the game and is trophy thirsty. I think it is quite the opposite - she was very much enjoying the game, to the extent that she was playing it too much according to some. And then, she reaches no. 1 spot, and all of sudden there is this hurricane of attacks on her - how she doesn't deserve it, how she only got that spot by the faulty counting system, how she is only defender, and not attacker, everyone trying to completely discredit this success, that they made her HAVE TO win a grand slam or she is bogus. This is why she stepped into this adventure, because these accusations were probably unbareable to her. And now people accuse her wanting the trophies too much.
Sometimes it seems to me that some players can do no right.

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