The Tennis Week Interview: Jelena Jankovic
The Tennis Week Interview: Jelena Jankovic
By Richard Pagliaro
Long before she picked up a tennis racquet for the first time, Jelena Jankovic could make the strings sing with her soft touch. As a child growing up in Belgrade, Jankovic was a piano player years before she even considered becoming a tennis player.
Seeing a Monica Seles match on television inspired Jankovic to leave the keyboard for the court and compose a career that has seen her top the world junior rankings, crack the WTA Tour top 20, spend some as a back-seat driver for comedian Jim Carrey and receive an offer to co-star in a film.
One of the friendliest and most personable players on the WTA Tour, the 21st-ranked Jankovic is striving to sustain the consistency necessary for maximizing her wide-ranging tennis talents. Jankovic owns career wins over Serena Williams, Nadia Petrova and Patty Schnyder and has shown the skills that make her a threat to the world's best players when she's playing her best tennis.
Last March, Jankovic beat Paola Suarez, Silvia Farina Elia, Sania Mirza and Serena Williams to reach the Dubai final where she was up a break over then World No. 1 Lindsay Davenport before bowing, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. Three months later, Jankovic advanced to the Birmingham final on grass and took a set off top-seeded Maria Sharapova before the Wimbledon winner prevailed with a three-set win.
It has been a relatively rapid rise for the 20-year-old Jankovic, who has only been playing competitive tennis for about a decade.
Jankovic didn't give much thought to playing professional tennis as a child. Her older brother, Marco, was the tennis player in the family and she was preoccupied with playing the piano when her brother and parents introduced her to tennis at the age of nine and a half in an effort to keep her busy. Even before she picked up a racquet, Jankovic was already a tennis fan thanks to Seles.
"I wasn't even playing tennis (when I first saw Seles)," Jankovic said. "I was always watching (Seles) on TV with my dad and I decided to play tennis not because I wanted to be a professional player, but because my parents wanted me to get involved in something so I wouldn't be running around the streets in Serbia."
Six months after she started playing, Jankovic was already entering tournaments. A gas shortage caused by the country's civil war made traveling difficult, so Jankovic dropped the piano lessons and focused her attention on tennis. Two and half years after she picked up a racquet her family moved to Florida. The right hander has trained at the Nick Bollettieri Academy and rose to the ITF No. 1 junior ranking behind her biting backhand that benefits from her strong left hand.
"It's just natural I just started to play like this I just hit the ball no one taught me to do it — I'm a little bit left handed," Jankovic said. "I kick a ball with the left leg and I write right handed now, but before I wanted to always right left handed, but they always told me write right handed."
A gifted athlete who moves well and wields a wicked weapon in her backhand down the line, Jankovic's biggest challenges have been compiling consistent results — though she reached three WTA Tour finals last year she has yet to surpass the third round in 10 Grand Slam appearances, including a straight sets loss to 188th-ranked Ukranian qualifier Olga Savchuk in the second round of last month's Australian Open — and refining her shot selection. Like many young players with top 20 talent, Jankovic is capable of cracking a series of explosive winners or scattering a string of errors outside the lines.
Continuing her maturation as a player, Jankovic is becoming committed to conditioning in the belief that becoming a stronger person can make her a smarter player by enabling her to play purposeful points in extended exchanges.
"I am working on every aspect of of my game, on moving forward, on my transition game," Jankovic said. "Also a very important part of my tennis is fitness. I want to be stronger, because in the past, this was my biggest weakness."
She is Snow White's daughter — Jelena's mother's name is "Snezana" which translates to "Snow White" — and is part of a talented group of Serbian players that includes 19th-ranked Ana Ivanovic and former top 10 player Jelena Dokic and the Octagon client's good looks, exotic appeal and outgoing personality have attracted both a fan following and interest from film makers. Jankovic was offered a role in a Serbian comedy last year and hopes to someday pursue acting. She recently sat down with Tennis Week for this interview in which she discusses how her tennis career began, identifies her ideal doubles partner and discusses an entertaining, energizing ride with Jim Carrey.
Tennis Week: Jelena, what areas of your game have you been working on?
Jelena Jankovic: I am working on every aspect of my game, on moving forward, on my transition game. Also a very important part of my tennis is fitness. I want to be stronger, because in the past, this was my biggest weakness.
Tennis Week: Where do you feel you have improved the most in the past year?
Jelena Jankovic: I feel that I improved so many different, small things in my game. Also I feel stronger and more experienced on the court, but my main goal is just to continue working hard because there is always room for improvement.
Tennis Week: What are your goals for this season?
Jelena Jankovic: I don't like to set goals ranking wise. It is crucial for me to believe in myself, play tennis with joy, have fun on the court, give my maximum, use my talent, fight for every point. If you want to last long in tennis carrier, you need to feel like that.
Tennis Week: Why do you think Serbia has produced so many good players: yourself, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Dokic to name a few?
Jelena Jankovic: When I started to play tennis Monica Seles was an idol for many girls in my country. I was 15 years old when I won the Australian Open juniors and became number one in the world in juniors. After that I started to play professional tennis and a few years later I was the first Serbian after so many years that became number 17 in the world. This fact in my opinion inspired many young talented kids in my country to start playing tennis. Also, in that time, I was in regular school. Education in general plays a big part in my life. My parents have always felt that it is important to do well in school, and since I showed a lot of talent in tennis as well, they lead me to be successful in both areas and learn how to become a leader and example to others. Anyway, we are very talented nation in many sports, and in this moment tennis is growing and I am very happy because of that.
Tennis Week: The last time we spoke, at the 2005 U.S. Open in August, you had been offered a film role in Serbia in a comedy, which seemed like a natural fit with your sense of humor. Did you accept the role? Would you consider doing a film in the future? If so, what kind of film?
Jelena Jankovic: Last year's conversation wasn't finished. I have so many offers from different companies. Everybody is telling me that I am a natural, exotic looking and also that I have a good sense of humor. I didn't decide yet because in this moment tennis is my first priority. I would like do something funny, maybe a comedy or even some action movie.
Tennis Week: You're a person who sees the humor in life. What is the funniest experience you've had playing professional tennis?
Jelena Jankovic: During the 2005 U.S. Open, I finished my practice and I needed a golf cart to return to the player facility. People involved in this kind of transportation told me that I needed to wait, but accidentally a golf cart appeared and in the front seat was my favorite actor, Jim Carrey. He offered me a seat next to him. He was talking with me like he knows me for a long time. He was making jokes, we were laughing like crazy. In this moment I forgot that I am tired and my energy was back and I understood why so many people like him. I am using this moment to send best regards to him!!!
Tennis Week: What gives you the greatest joy playing tennis?
Jelena Jankovic: First of all, nobody put pressure on me to play tennis — my parents didn't (pressure me to play) — I choose tennis for me. I chose it because I love it. I enjoy making winners on the court. I enjoy the feeling of winning! In general, playing on big stadiums, feeling the atmosphere, interacting with the crowd gives me special excitement on the court! Also this sport gives tennis players the opportunity to introduce different people, different cultures, and habits. All these things make me very happy and satisfied because memories and people who I meet, victories from tournaments in different countries is something special for me and I feel very fulfilled.
Tennis Week: Do you live full-time in Serbia or Florida or split time between both places?
Jelena Jankovic: I was born in Serbia and I have always lived there, but in recent years I have been traveling so much that it is hard to depict one place as my residence. I spend most time in Serbia and Florida, but majority of time I am in numerous destinations globally!
Tennis Week: If you could pick an ideal doubles partner — anyone in tennis history — who would you pick to play with?
Jelena Jankovic: Monica Seles for sure. She is a wonderful person and she is my mentor now. I am proud because I (have spent time) working with her.
Tennis Week: What do you do to get away from tennis while you are on tour?
Jelena Jankovic: I am a very outgoing person, and I tend to discover and learn more about different places I visit during the tour. I love the beach so any time there is a chance, I am getting tanned by reading books next to the sea or ocean. I also like to try different cuisines and explore specific restaurants that are available, spend quality time with my family members that travel with me, and just try not to think about tennis since there are other things that make me happy even though my career plays a big role in my life.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams