Girls' World Posted 06/05/2008 @ 4 :14 PM
Well some of you may want to give me an earful (can you say, Hear me Roar!
) for what I'm going to write, but here goes. Jelena Jankovic lost a heartbreaker of a serve-breaker match to Ana Ivanovic (6-4,3-6,6-4) today, conceding a package unheard of until all those Fortune 500 companies decided that the best dose of medicine for a useless CEO was handing him a multi-million dollar check, a yacht, a Fifth Avenue condo and a lifetime membership to a strip joint. In winning, Ivanovic assumed the bragging rights to Serbia, the world no. 1 ranking, and a place in the finals of Roland Garros.
If I were Ivanovic, I'd contemplate hopping on a jet out of Charles de Gaulle tonight and enjoy tomorrow's men's semifinals in some Belgrade sports bar; why not quit when you're that
far ahead? Throw Jankovic a bone and let her
play the final (it's team Serbia anyway, isn't it?), so she can at least become the first Grand Slam champion from their nation. Why not spread the wealth?
Of all the reasons why that won't happen, the best one may be the nature and intensity of this rivalry. Let's not kid ourselves, if either of these girls had to chose between losing to the other and, oh, having to walk across hot burning coals, she would say, Fire 'em up
, and have her socks off before you blinked. I'm not saying they hate each other, in the grand John McEnroe/Ivan Lendl tradition. In fact, I'm pretty sure that sweet Ana is incapable of feeling hatred, while saucy Jelena couldn't be bothered to make the effort it takes to really and truly despise, because - hey - what does hate produce, but more of itself? Still. .
In her press conference, Jankovic was asked by El Jon to characterize her relationship with her rival. Having already cried a river in the locker room right after the match (she would reveal that to us, and promptly begin to tear up again, as if to say, You don't believe me, look, I'm about to turn on the taps again!
), she gave this subdued and - for her - unusually diplomatic answer:
"But off the court, to be honest, we are not best friends. I cannot tell you that I have best friends on the tour, doesn't matter from the same country or not. It's just very hard to have friends on tour and be in good relationship with the players that you play. . .This is just girls' world. I think in the men's world it's a little bit better, because they play a match and then they go and drink beer after it. So it's a different story. I have a lot more friends on the men's tour."
Ordinarily, we would consider this a ho-hum attempt to soften what rough edges exist, and she's really just rephrasing a familiar Psychology 101 chestnut. But it's a pretty handy prism through which to view today's match, because the tennis seemed to simulate the passive-aggressive urges and behaviors that are on full display on prom night, or when a guy is insane enough to get in a position where he's obliged to introduce a new girlfriend to an old girlfriend. And don't get all over my case about this; I'm a guy, I only know it from that end of things.
Anyway, you could tell that we weren't going to have anything as cut-and-dried as a good old-fashioned Chris Evert vs. Tracy Austin catfight (and boy, were they ever good ones!) by the first changeover, after Jankovic held serve. As the young ladies changed ends, they arrived at the net post simultaneously, almost bumped into each other, and backed down in perfect sync.
Jankovic played extremely well in the first set - Ivanovic took the game right to her forehand, and found that it wasn't as vulnerable as the pundits proclaimed. Jankovic looked impressive in the first set, pony-tail flying, both feet leaving the ground as she pounded away. At the same time, Ivanovic was playing within herself (and not in that good way), seemingly more concerned with maintaining her signature poise than doing the dirty work at hand. But by the fifth game she'd loosened up sufficiently to get back into it, and Jankovic backed off. These girls will play many more matches, and it's probably always going to come down to a battle between Jankovic's flamboyant volatility - athletically as well as personally - and Ivanovic's restraint and precision.
At times, I was hard pressed to decide which game I like better. There's that wonderful shoulder and trunk rotation when Jankovic blasts a backhand; then there's that exquisite timing of Ivanovic's smooth, just-flat-enough forehand. The only trouble was, and here's where we slip back into girl's world, neither girl seemed to want, or be able to handle, a direct confrontation between their best tennis. Or even their worst tennis. Five of the games in the first set were breaks; Ivanovic broke seven times in the match, one better than Jankovic. As the level of one player rose, the level of the other dropped. They met in the powder room and, instead of having it out, once and for all, they ignored each other and thereby extended the grudge and took it back onto the dance floor.
I'm not at all sure that this was obvious to those watching on television instead of witnessing the match live. But as El Jon remarked early in the third set, you would have expected a match in which so much was at stake to have a more electric atmosphere. If nobody leaped out of his seat to cry "oui!", or tried to jump start a Wave, it was because the subtle probing, retreating, advancing, and retreating kept things from building to a head. Don't get me wrong, both women played some great points - some even at the same - but you can also see that stuff in a spirited practice session.
Or look at it this way; the ladies took turns in the spotlight. Ivanovic won six of the last seven games in the first set. She led by a set, 3-2, 40-love - which was as close to grabbing her opponent's hair and yanking out a handful as you can get. But Ivanovic demurred. She failed to hold and Jankovic, revived, won the next five games (for seven-game streak).
Later, Ivanovic said of that stretch: "I had my chances in the second set and didn't use them. She started playing really well - I was too passive at times. I tried to step up a little bit more and then made some unforced errors, so I really had to work hard on, you know, to go back to basics and what I have to do.. . . but toward the end of the set I managed to calm down and step up. . . take my chance and play good."
As befitting a break-fest of such dimensions, the end wasn't very dramatic; as fate would have it, Jankovic had the misfortune to have to yield the stage last, and she did so in an almost fated, desultory fashion. You have to give Ivanovic credit for handling the situation well, but the more significant message may be that Jankovic once again showed that she plays best when fighting for survival, rather than ascendancy. She's a great come from behind player; get her down 2-6, 2-3, 0-40, and she runs like a banshee and fires lasers. Give her a lead and seem doesn't seem at all sure about what she needs to do next. Thankfully, this is a girl who can roll with it; even a loss this resonant couldn't suppress her insouciance for very long.
At the start of her presser, she answered my gingerly put question (basically, "What happened?") in a monotone, eyes firmly fixed in the middle distance. But after her dissertation on girl's world, her mood improved little-by-little, before our very eyes. By the time El Jon got around to asking her about that fist-pump she produced for the crowd back in a corner in the fifth game of the third set, mimicking the girl some around her have dubbed "Pumpovic," she was fine mettle.
"No. I mean, for me, it's really funny, you know, the way she does that, and there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, each of us, we have our own way to, how to say, pump ourselves up. The way she does, you know, I just imitated it. It's a little bit similar to Sharapova. So for me that was a little bit funny. . . I saw her doing that, so that's why I did it. The crowd enjoyed it, for some reason."
Never a dull moment, in girl's world.
Jankovic was asked at the end of the presser what she would do tonight. She replied: "Keel myself?"
She paused to let the laughter subside, then went on: "No. I wil have some dinner and maybe get drunk or something. I don't know."
It's a good thing she has all those male drinking buddies to call on tonight. I'm not at all sure I'd trust these two sitting across a table from each other with a couple of empty beer bottles at hand.