Jankovic’s beauty lies in her willingness to struggle
Jelena Jankovic is like a sculpture you need to ruminate over for a while before you identify her beauty. She can’t out-hit and out-power her opponents, so she must annoy and outsmart and outrun them. Which she does, to the point where opponents look like they want to sue for harassment.
The best player in the world needs to have won at least one Grand Slam title, so sue the Women’s Tennis Association computer which spits out her name as No.1.
The best player in the world needs to be a tunnel-visioned beast, but she laughs at herself on the big screen during changeovers. She was asked a few weeks ago how her injured foot was and replied: “The food is great”. Then she giggled at her mistake.
The best player in the world is expected to own a thousand-yard stare and never admit to weakness, but she lay down on court for 30 seconds like a distressed drama queen after one point at the US Open.
Asked if the pavement was hot, she countered: “No, but I thought I was going to get my dress really dirty, and then that was my biggest concern.”
Then again, maybe we should have more best players in the world like Jelena Jankovic.
Jankovic interests deeply on two levels. First, her ability to find a smile and a sunny quote even in defeat and distress. It will be suggested that it is precisely this lack of hard-nosed desire that is impeding her, as if this constantly injured athlete suffers from a medical condition called killer instinct deficiency. Problem is, Roger Federer would laugh in your face if you ever equated niceness with an absence of toughness.
Second, Jankovic interests because she is unattractive. Not ugly in the way she looks, but in the way she plays. She’s a marathon runner with a tennis racquet, an athlete who operates on a rectangular track, a player whose matches shouldn’t be measured in points won but miles run.
We normally turn up our noses at players like this. If we’re feeling generous we pay them second-hand compliments, brush them off with patronising words like “grinder” or “hard worker” or “utility player”. As if this is some polite way of proclaiming them as untalented, untouched by beauty, unfamiliar with flair. A retriever after all is a fine dog, it is a terrible label for a tennis player.
The preference in any sport is instinctively for the artistic and the aggressive, a player must either paint a beautiful picture or a belligerent one. It is easy to fall for the effortless Ronaldo and hard to resist the menacing Serena. Go for it, crowds insist, just don’t bloody sit back.
The attacker is seen as a refined fellow with an open mind, who relishes adventure and is an athletic relative of Indiana Jones. We like golfers who attack pins and tennis players who try to kiss the lines. There is an electric appeal to the sportsman literally going forward (rushing to the net to volley, running at defences in football, stepping out to hit a six), for it suggests audacity and initiative.
Jankovic is none of this, she’s not obviously entertaining, not a conspicuously pretty champion, but a champion nonetheless. She’s like a sculpture you need to ruminate over for a while before you identify her beauty. She can’t out-hit and out-power opponents, so she must annoy and outsmart and outrun them. Which she does, to the point where opponents look like they want to sue for harassment.
As she said: “There are taller girls out there. I can’t compete with their strength and height, so I have to find other ways of getting an advantage. I have been getting stronger in the gym, but tennis is like a game of chess. Sometimes you have to be smarter than your opponent to get an advantage to win the game.”
So she chases down balls with the zeal of a bounty hunter, she’s allergic to error, she keeps opponents off balance, she constructs points sagely, she turns every point into some test of character. Only after watching for a while is Jankovic revealed: she has the speed of an Inca courier (as miler John Landy was once famously described) and a monk’s willingness to embrace struggle. Tenacity, we tend to forget amid the blizzards of muscular shot-making, is a talent in itself.
This life of Jankovic’s, it is a hard sporting life for nothing comes easy, no point is cheap, no set short, no opponent daunted. Venus’ serves are like fullstops, Jankovic’s are like the opening of a conversation. Everything she does must be earned. But she is not alone, we see her family all across the landscape of sport. In the persistence of Dirk Kuyt, the bloody-mindedness of Lleyton Hewitt, the doggedness of Vijay Singh, the stoic method of Rahul Dravid.
It’s like some equitable God has given them half a helping of flair (or muscle or height), but a double serving of sweat and intelligence. They’re not first in line as exhibits in a sports museum, but don’t think of picking a team without them.
Jankovic, in a strange way, represents us, she is the ambassador of the average man. We want to be Federeresque, it’s what we dream of, but it’s Jankovic who reminds us that sport has place not just for the preternaturally gifted but also the industrious. Work hard, coaches bellow and fathers urge: here is proof that it goes a long way.
Anyway, the saucy Serb might grin and say, this beauty business, it is overrated. And she might offer as evidence the words of Emil Zatopek. As that face-contorted, tongue-flapping, head-shaking ugly champion once put it: “I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their beauty.”