Tearful tyro makes it big beyond Belgrade
By Sue Mott
Why can't our tennis players be more like the Eastern Europeans? Talk to Jelena Jankovic and you would understand precisely why. Because everything they have achieved comes with shovel-loads of hard work, painful separations and a pitiless eye for ambition. The life of a professional tennis player for a girl out of Serbia is not one long float on a pedalo.
Jankovic was in the news last week. She won the Family Circle Cup at Charleston, South Carolina, beating another Eastern European, Dinara Safina, in the final. She now rises to seventh in the world rankings, the first Serbian woman to crack the top 10. Her country is so thrilled that it wants to put her in movies and sponsor her own clothing line. She is big in Belgrade. And perhaps she is gearing up to be large-ish at Wimbledon, too.
If you are in the market for the 'One to Watch', this would be ones of the 'Ones'. Not, as it happens, a robotic misery from a grey former communist suburb with a tribe of familial hangers-on, as we tend to stereotype the TWEEs (Tennis Women East Europeans), but a lovely brunette in big earrings, a giggler, a crier and a murderous hitter with a work ethic.
She is 22 and speaks Serbian, French, English and a little bit of Spanish. She is in her second year at university studying media, management, business, computing and economics. Her parents are both economists. She began playing tennis when she was 9½, which is considerably late by modern standards. She had no thoughts whatsoever of becoming a professional.
"When I began it was just for recreation, just for fun," she says. "I had a class once or twice a week. It wasn't serious. My parents just thought it was good to do sport after school. Also, I had piano lessons at the same time, so I was a busy kid.
"We didn't know it then, but a war was coming. It became a little bit difficult to get fuel - that's why I had to stop the piano lessons. I had to choose: piano or tennis, because it was so hard to get around. I chose tennis, but it was difficult because I liked playing the piano. And now here I am travelling the world as a professional tennis player." Her amazement and delight still registers with her.
"Then people said I was very talented." She laughs at the very idea. "I don't know how they could see. But I played my first international tournament in Rome and I won it. Then I went to America for a few months, was signed by IMG [International Management Group, a heavy hitter in the tennis field] and I went to the Nick Bolletieri Academy in Florida when I was 12.
"My mother came with me to begin with, but then she returned to Belgrade. Sometimes I was really missing my family; I would cry and I couldn't take it. But I think it made me stronger as a person, also as a player. I feel I learnt how life is and I learnt to do things without help.
"I stayed in a dormitory with kids from all over the world. It was good that I learnt to be independent - I didn't have anybody to help me. For instance, in the beginning I didn't know how to speak English, so I came back from school with homework that I couldn't understand. But I could talk French and so could another girl, and she would translate for me. I learnt English quickly.
"Even then I wasn't like other girls who play tennis all day long. I don't want to be a tennis player that just knows how to hit a forehand and backhand. I went to school every morning from 8am to 2pm and then played tennis in the afternoon. For me, education is very important, as you never know what will happen tomorrow. I had to be ready for my future. Because how many millions of people who play tennis are going to make it? I was the best student in every class I attended. I always had A's; I never had B's. I always tried to be my best, I tried to listen very hard to the teachers. I always paid attention."
The culture shock upon hearing these words is shockingly immense. Living in a cosy western country where listening to iPods is considered vastly preferable to paying any attention to teachers, and where an attitude of slumpen inertia pervades most teenage brains in the run-up to GCSEs, her cheery engagement with the educational process is frankly unbelievable.
She wanted to get on. She wanted to be more than big in Belgrade.
But there were difficulties. How about this one? When she was 14, the country she was living in declared war on the country she called home and set about bombing her city, where her family, including her two brothers, resided.
"I would watch on CNN. They bombed buildings I knew. The electricity was lost. From 8pm every night a siren would sound and my family knew it was about to begin. They had to take cover. They were bombing mainly military buildings but sometimes they can drop somewhere else. My brother was in an apartment next to one of the targets, and the whole building started shaking. He said he felt the vibrations so much, such power, that he thought his own building was hit. The windows shattered. It was a difficult situation - I always felt scared.
"Being in America at the time was hard, but I can't get too political. I don't like to talk about that. My mum was with me at the time and she didn't talk to me about it. She didn't think it was something a young girl should see. During that time I didn't play any tournaments. I didn't do any travelling - there were problems with the visa. But it was another thing that made me strong."
Seven years later, however, that young girl was playing in a US Open semi-final. She is right: she had developed mental strength beyond her years. All the more so because at the start of 2006, having enjoyed a meteoric rise to No 17 in the world, everything suddenly changed. Accustomed to the luscious elixir of victory, she suddenly felt the scornful slap of defeat. Time after time. She lost 10 straight matches between January and May last year.
"I am used to winning. I didn't like losing. It was really tough for me to deal with," she recalls. "I caught some virus in the off-season and for two months I couldn't play or practice. I was tired and I was always kind of miserable. By nature I'm happy, excited, I like to laugh and make jokes. But I was another person, I didn't feel like living life.
"They did tests on me, but they never discovered what the virus was. I played really badly, I lost all my confidence. I wasn't even fit. By the time I played in Rome in May last year, I had slipped to 38th in the world." (What Britain wouldn't do for a female player ranked 38th in the world, but we will let this sigh of yearning pass. Jankovic wouldn't understand.)
The red clay courts of Rome hosted her turning point on the Sony Ericsson Tour. She reached the quarter-finals, losing to the (on-off) majestic Venus Williams. At Wimbledon she had her revenge, beating Williams, the defending champion, in a three-set third-round upset. "It was one of my best matches because I remember how nervous I felt at the end. When I was about to win I was so excited, I felt the racket was going to fall out of my hand. I was shaking so much.
"Wimbledon is so special. To beat Venus at Wimbledon, where she has won three times, was amazing. I think this match was my motivation to go on and beat Vaidisova, Kuznetsova and Dementieva [Czech, Russian and Russian respectively, so you get the cultural drift] in my greatest-ever run at the US Open." She lost in the semi-finals to the steel-nerved Justine Henin of Belgium (ex-husband Hardenne has been comprehensively de-hyphenated), who trounced her 6-0 in the last of three sets. But Jankovic won the first set and, far from being crushed by the experience, emerged with even higher self-esteem.
"I should have been in the final but I made a little mistake. I was leading in the second set and already thinking I was in the final. I was thinking too far ahead. Justine is tough, but if I had stayed tough myself I would have won.
"I am determined to be a grand slam champion and when I do I think I will lay on the ground and cry like Roger Federer. But that reminds me of a funny story when I was watching someone play in the French Open. I was standing with another girl and we were chatting. On the court, a player - I can't remember which one - had reached the semi-final for the first time in her career. And yet she was not reacting.
"You couldn't see any emotions. I said to my companion, 'If I was that player I would be jumping around, celebrating big time.' And then when it happened to me at the US Open, I was completely speechless. I was in shock. I didn't do anything at all. I saw my friend in the locker room afterwards and she said: 'What happened to you after all your promises? What kind of reaction was that?'
"Then I believed that sometimes you cannot express yourself because the emotion is too much. When the moment comes, you cannot know how your body will react.
"I am a really emotional person. But that is something I hate about myself. I am a person who is weak. When I love somebody, when something bad happens, when somebody dies, I cannot hold it in myself. Tears come up. Even things like sad films make me cry. I try to hide. I say, 'Oh, my eyes are watering.' I wish I could be a little bit more solid. I wish I didn't cry so quick." She looks crestfallen and apologetic, but then smiles.
"I'll tell you a story. I get a lot of letters from my fans giving me their support. I am really grateful and thankful for that. One day, I received a letter from a young girl in Japan. She was 14, recovering from leukaemia, and she said she really enjoyed my game. She liked that I am a fighter. She said the sweat I give on the court inspired and motivated her to help fight her disease. She drew me a cartoon and asked me to send her something as a souvenir.
When I read this I started crying. I got my bag and my hat and my warm-ups and my rackets and my clothes and I signed them all. Then I sent them to her. She had ended her letter by saying, 'I am praying for your health and your success.' She is the one who is sick, and she is praying for my health! Sometimes I don't mind that I cry. I was really amazing. Beautiful."
Wimbledon is warned. When the ladies' finalists emerge in future with their customary floral bouquets, it might be wise to add a man-sized box of tissues.