Jelena Jankovic: 'We were treated like a couple. It was as though we were two lovebirds...'
Jelena Jankovic thoroughly enjoyed her mixed doubles success with Jamie Murray at the All England Club last year even if, as she told Paul Newman, it gave a rather misleading impression about her love life
Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Jelena Jankovic will miss the fun she had in winning Wimbledon's mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray last year, but her decision to concentrate on singles when the championships begin next week will have one major bonus. There will be no more tricky conversations with her boyfriend back home in Belgrade.
Ask many casual tennis fans in Britain for their favourite memory of 2007 and they will recall the pure joy of Jankovic and Murray's partnership rather than Roger Federer's thrilling win over Rafael Nadal or Marion Bartoli's extraordinary run to the final. Their victory made Murray the first Briton to win a Wimbledon title for 20 years, but more importantly it showed that sport at the highest level can still be fun.
Jankovic's laughter and Murray's cheeky grin were evidence of a clear chemistry between the two, even if their relationship, despite the nudge-nudge, wink-wink tone of some of the media coverage, never went further than a friendship between two kindred spirits.
When Jankovic was reunited with her long-term boyfriend back in Serbia she had some reassuring to do. "It wasn't very pleasant for him to read about me and Jamie," the 23-year-old world No 2 recalled. "It was a strange situation. But I explained everything to him. He knows that I'm like that. It's my personality.
"I said to him: 'The media have made it all up.' In the past they've paired me up with other guys I've never met before. There was a story about me dating some basketball player. On that occasion I just said: 'Who is this guy? I don't know him. I've never met him'. I suppose that's what the tabloids do. They just thrive on rumours.
"My boyfriend and I have been together for two and a half years. I'm really happy. I like having that support and when you've finished your tennis obligations it's important to be a regular, normal girl and enjoy your life. I have some fun.
"He sometimes comes to tournaments, but he has his own life. He can't just leave his work and come and travel with me whenever he wants. He's just finished university and is just starting to get involved in business. He can travel with me sometimes but not all the time."
As for Murray, Jankovic was not even aware that Andy, the world No 11, had a brother until last year. "I first met him at a party in Miami," she said. "That was the first time I'd seen him in my life. I didn't even know that he played tennis. I only knew about Andy."
Murray's agent subsequently asked her if she would like to play mixed doubles with him at Wimbledon. She had made no decision until they arrived at the All England Club at the same time the day before the tournament started and Murray asked again.
"I didn't intend to play the mixed at Wimbledon," she said. "He's a proper doubles player, but I'm not. I said to him: 'Why are you choosing me? I'm just a typical singles player. You're making a bad choice.' But he insisted he wanted to play with me and so I agreed. We just got together and started playing. If somebody had told me before that we were going to win the title I would never have believed them. We just took one match at a time. We had so much fun."
As they progressed Jankovic started promising Murray kisses as a means of motivating him. "I'd tell him: 'This return, hit a good one because you're going to get many kisses'," she said. "Jamie's similar to me. He's a very nice guy who likes to have fun. He was always making me laugh. That's why we were very relaxed on the court and I think that's why we played good tennis together. I don't think we felt any pressure.
"I had some problems with my leg during the tournament and when I got to the fourth round I was starting to think that I might have to pull out of the mixed because it was bothering me. But then I got knocked out of the singles, Jamie and I kept winning and before I knew it we were in the final and ended up holding the trophy. It was an unbelievable experience.
"At the same time there were all these rumours going round I had a soft spot for him. But how could I have a soft spot for someone I hardly knew? I enjoyed the Champions' Dinner at the end of the tournament, but it was all rather strange. When we arrived we were treated like a couple. It was as though we were two lovebirds. I thought: 'Oh God. This whole story has developed around us and it isn't true'. Maybe the British fans didn't know me that well, because I didn't behave any differently with Jamie to how I am all the time. That's my personality. Even when I play singles I have fun."
It probably helps that Jankovic has a wider view of the world than some of her fellow professionals. Despite all her commitments on the Sony Ericsson tour she has also found time to take an external degree course at a Belgrade university.
"In the first two years I've studied a lot of different subjects and now I have to decide what I want to major in," she said. "It's not that I'm looking for a job after I've finished my tennis career. It's mostly for my own education. Despite being a professional athlete and despite being very successful in my job, I still want to be a complete person. I want to be educated. I want to be ready for my life after tennis."
Education always came first as a child. Jankovic did not pick up a racket until she was nearly 10, although her talent was quickly evident. At 12 she went to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, where she was a contemporary of Maria Sharapova. "I was a bit different to Maria or Tatiana Golovin and the other girls who went on to the tour," she said. "I went to school from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon and then played tennis. The other kids were playing tennis all day, so I think I had a different perspective. My education was very important to me. That was my No 1 priority. Sport came second.
I never thought that I would become a professional tennis player."
With a smile never far from her face, Jankovic's pleasure is evident whenever she plays. "It's always nice to be positive on the court, no matter what the situation is," she said. "If you're positive on the court and have a good attitude I believe it will help you to play better.
"If you get negative, miserable and frustrated on the court I don't think it does you any good. It's not good for the fans either. People don't want to see miserable faces. They want to see high-quality tennis, but they also want to see players enjoy themselves.
"I don't see a problem with smiling when my opponent wins a point. I smile when everything is going my way, but when my opponent plays a great point or hits an unbelievable shot I also smile. It's better than waving my fist like some of the other players and shouting 'C'mon!' in my opponent's face. I think that's a very bad thing to do. That's really annoying and it's bad sportsmanship.
"I'm just a very outgoing personality, though I'm also very competitive. As soon as I step on the court I have fun, but I'm also a good competitor. I'm a big fighter and I fight until the end. I smile, but I never give up. I'm not a soft touch. I want to win every match. Every match is a battle."
For the moment those battles will be singles matches. Despite rising this week to her highest ever world ranking (No 2), Jankovic has yet to make the final breakthrough on the game's biggest stages and needs to lose the "nearly woman" reputation she is building.
She has reached the semi-finals of four of the last seven Grand Slam tournaments but lost on each occasion to the eventual winner. Over the same period Ana Ivanovic, her 20-year-old compatriot, has made three finals, claiming the world No 1 spot with her victory at the French Open earlier this month.
Jankovic lost to Bartoli at Wimbledon last year and has never been beyond the fourth round there but loves the tournament. "It's my favourite Grand Slam," she said. "Every Grand Slam is special, but there's something different about Wimbledon. You're aware of the history of the tournament and its traditions. It's a great atmosphere to play in and the British fans really know their tennis."
She is not one to dwell on the past – "I'm the sort who doesn't even remember what they ate yesterday, let alone a match from a few years ago" – but treasures a victory over Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2006. "It was on No 2, the graveyard court," she said. "She was the defending champion and for years she'd hardly lost to anyone at Wimbledon other than her sister. To beat the defending champion at a Grand Slam event, on a surface where she plays her best tennis, was really special."
After she has struggled with injuries this year, which began with a lengthy recovery from sinus surgery, Jankovic's decision to give the mixed doubles a miss at the All England Club was no surprise. However, she does not rule out a reunion with Murray in the future. "I'd love to play again and have another good experience," she said. "I love playing with Jamie. It's a lot of fun, especially in England in front of his home crowd."