IW: The Trouble with JJ
It's time to start asking the obvious: What's happened to Jelena Jankovic this year? You can understand a couple of early season losses, as well as the difficulty of living up to being No. 1 for the first time in Australia. You can even understand a loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a strong young player who JJ had never faced before (love that swinging volley, eh?). What's harder to get is the way she played and looked during this loss. Jankovic was listless, a step behind, her famously smooth footwork now a lurch and a lunge. She was even unsure of herself when she got a good look at a ball, guiding it toward the corners rather than belting it with abandon.
In her presser afterward, Jankovic herself began by saying she didn't know what the trouble was, then went about putting her finger on the problem. "You know, my whole concept of the game is off," she said. "especially during the points. I don't feel some of my shots that were my weapons before."
What began as a physical issue in January, when her increased muscle and weight slowed her down, has moved into her head—that, as they say, is not good. It will be more complicated now for her to find her old form than it would have been if she simply needed to lose a little muscle mass. Jankovic looked slimmer to me yesterday than she did in the off-season, but it only served to make her seem vulnerable against the powerful 17-year-old Pavyluchenkova, who is noticeably taller than when I saw her at last year's Wimbledon.
Jankovic was defensive as always, but this time there was no punch in her counter-punch. Where in the past she's answered hard-hit shots with wrong-footing backhands down the line, this time she was caught by those same shots and forced to loft up desperation stab lobs. JJ was also tentative when she was on the offensive, seeming to have no clue how she was supposed to construct a point—no "concept," as she put it.
She's been worse off before, as my friend Doug Robson of USA Today pointed out yesterday, when she lost 10 straight matches to start the year a few seasons ago. While JJ has been a model of consistency recently, she does have slumps and plateaus in her. In the past, she's found her way out of them, and I think she's too talented and driven not to do it again. Yesterday I wondered about the emphasis in modern tennis on physical work had gone too far. Jankovic, who said she "trusted the fitness" work that her trainer Pat Etcheberry had her do in the off-season, may be a cautionary tale—at heart, her game is about quickness and counterpunching and great court sense; you mess with the balance of those natural talents at your peril when you try to add physical power to the mix. Etcheberry knows his business, but he also trained Justine Henin to the point of exhaustion a few years ago.
To start 2009, I asked whether now was the time for a "major nosedive" by Jankovic. I thought maybe she'd gone as far as her ambition and self-conception would take her, but I also thought that her ambition had been upgraded when she became No. 1, and that she would avoid a letdown through hard work. Through no fault of her own, that hard work led her away from her strengths as a player and has left her wondering what she ever did well.
For now, Jankovic remains a complicated figure at a complicated moment. She trudged into her late-night, sparsely attended presser yesterday with a sad face. But she couldn't help a little black humor when the transcriber had trouble setting up her machine. "Don't worry, there isn't much to talk about," she moaned with a smile. "I hope it doesn't work."
By the end of the interview, JJ, a well of deep and varied emotions, had spun around 180 degrees. She was asked whether she had had "high hopes" coming to the BNP Paribas. The questions came from a reporter with an empathetic, rather than interrogative, tone of voice. It seemed to draw out those deep emotions and remind Jankovic of the expectations she had for this season only a few months ago. For once, Jankovic had nothing to say; she couldn't cover her disappointment with black humor. She had tears in her eyes.