Wk.30- Still Somewhat Broken, Occasionally Bowed and Still Not #1
Wherever Jelena Jankovic goes, intrigue is sure to follow. And on a WTA tour where the U.S. Open Series is touted as an "important" late summer happening even as most of the top players are either too injured, protective of their pre-Olympic health, preoccupied or otherwise barely bothered enough to put in more than a cameo appearance in North American events, I suppose the walking and talking Serbian question mark/exclamation point/asterisk/medical oddity/smiley face should be seen as the invaluable asset that she is, huh?
The world #2 is the most entertaining player on tour for all the right, and some of the wrong, reasons.
Jankovic is not the BEST player, even if she has been sniffing around the edges of the #1 ranking for almost two months and may one day actually manage to claim the position (though it might come with one of those "invisible asterisks" attached). Like Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo, who before her became debatable #1's on the computer before they justified their standing by winning a slam title, the slam-deficient Jankovic is trying to slip through the back door of the most exclusive night club in the city without having to pay a cover charge or pass muster at the front door. Of course, bless her, would there be any more Jankovician way to reach the #1 ranking than by traveling around the bend, under a bridge, through the chicken coop, across a lily pad-strewn pond and over a sky full of puffy clouds? Not in a million years (or free helicopter rides to the court), I'd say.
That's why it's just so w-r-o-n-g that she couldn't pull off the feat in Los Angeles last week, which she would have done had she won the title rather than have been sent packing by eventual champ Dinara Safina in the semifinals. As it was, L.A. proved to be par for the Jelena course for the WTA's unquestioned "almost but not quite" Queen of Predictably Unpredictable Predictability.
Thing is, Jankovic has been the most consistent highly-ranked player on tour for about two years now, even going so far as to equal or improve upon her slam results in fifteen of her sixteen return trips to the season's four biggest events throughout her career. Then again, she's also the top player who's been most unable to close out "the big deal" despite having multiple opportunities to do so, too.
Just this season, she wasn't able to win Roland Garros without the presence of nemesis Justine Henin, and failed to win the all-Serbian SF match for the #1 ranking against Ana Ivanovic (holding true to JJ's luck, AnaIvo not only gained the top spot but also won her first slam one round later). She wasn't able to improve upon her past results at Wimbledon, either, even with Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport exiting early. Last week, with the likes of Ivanovic, Sharapova, Davenport, Svetlana Kuznetsova and the Williams sisters (three U.S. Open Series champs and five U.S. Open winners) out, she didn't win L.A. and push AnaIvo out of the #1 slot.
Of course, Jankovic DID play last week with a meniscus tear in her knee, so she gets something of a "pass" for that one. Then again, she probably shouldn't have been playing at all. Doctors told her to take 1-2 months off. The "new" Jelena heeded their advice... for a little over a week, then returned to the court. The good news is that the "old" risk-taking Jelena probably would have damned the torpedoes, not missed a single tournament, and already gone down in spine-tingling flames by now.
At 23 and improving most aspects of her game every season, Jankovic has the potential to have a career trajectory much like Mauresmo's. Not that of a "great" player who wins 4-5 slams, but a "very good" one who blooms late and wins one or two from age 25-28. Few players would be more in their element than Jankovic driving forward for a late-in-the-game major title that would validate her entire career in one instant, especially so soon after she supposedly considered quitting the sport after dropping ten straight matches early in 2006 (a story likely exaggerated for effect, considering Jelena's natural inclination to be as immensely dramatic with her pronouncements as possible).
For a time last week I was thinking that L.A. might be Jankovic's moment of truth, the place where she'd prove (or disprove) once and for all whether or not she'd ever have the goods to be able to gather herself enough to become a world #1 and/or slam champion. The knee, though, sort of put the kibosh on that. But the fact remains that she's going to need to fully grasp one of these golden opportunities -- seeing it in front of her, feeling the pressure but still pulling through without melting down mentally or breaking down physically -- if she's ever going to REALLY leave the sport having become anything near the player she could and should be.
Come to think of it, Jankovic becoming #1 by winning Los Angeles without facing any of the other contenders for the top spot might have been a tad on the dull side, and maybe even a touch "boring." It wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic (or even odd) enough to meet Jelena's standards, even with the proximity to Hollywood. There has to be a "better"' way... so don't be surprised if she finds it down the road, even if we might have to cover our eyes at the audacity of it all when she does.
(Of course, whether pushing her body, ignoring medical advice and blindly moving forward because of some unspoken early morning epiphany is something that a player could ever hope to survive long enough to fulfill her athletic potential is another discussion entirely, isn't it?)
As the years go by, Jankovic's quest will no doubt be fascinating and theatrical... not to mention exasperating, irritating, humorous, infuriating, wonderful, horrible, fun and, possibly even one day, emotionally fulfilling. Maybe. I mean, as long as Jelena doesn't do something perilous and/or stupid and mess things up.