No. 1 ranking within Jankovic's reach
by Matt Cronin, Special to FOXSports.com
LOS ANGELES - If Jelena Jankovic's damaged left knee stops shaking and she can get back the business of running gamely sideline to sideline, she could become the world's new No.1 this week at the East West Bank Classic at the Home Depot Center.
If she does so, the world No. 2 would become the third player in Sony Ericsson WTA Tour history to grab the top spot without having won a Grand Slam, following Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo, who did end up winning majors later in their careers.
That's a mandatory requirement for someone expecting a comparable level of respect in the locker room. Jankovic knows this very well, but she'll take the top spot any way she can snare it — hurt or healthy, happy or sad. She's an ultra-competitive sort with an obsessive love of the spotlight and she couldn't imagine ending her career without walking on court and some fan yelling, "There's that new No. 1 from Serbia."
"Since I was a young girl it's been my dream and every player's dream to become No. 1 and by achieving that, you take the monkey off your back," Jankovic said. "When you get older, at least one day you can say you were No. 1 and no one can take that away from you. You are in history and it's a great achievement. But I would also like to win a grand slam, to take that step forward and go to the next level."
That giant leap ahead is going to be difficult if she can't get herself right physically, or convince herself that she really has the goods to compete consistently.
Just before Wimbledon, she went to a pre-event parity hosted by Virgin where many of the world's elite were lined up for a photo opportunity. Jankovic looked good, but didn't exactly stand heads and shoulders above the rest.
"I'm one of the smallest ones, now that Justine (Henin) is gone," she said. "I saw the picture from the party and you see Williams sisters, (Ana) Ivanovic and (Maria) Sharapova and I'm a head shorter than everybody. I'm 5-9 and a half, and I'm the shorter one. You can imagine how big those girls are."
Size matters, but as the quick and powerful Henin showed during her dominant stretches, it doesn't mean everything. Jankovic is quicker than Venus, Serena, Ivanovic and Sharapova, but not as strong with her serve or forehand. But she's has beaten all of them by being relentless and sporting a sweet two-handed backhand that is as lethal as anyone's.
"Everything matters," she said. "You need to be agile and strong physically. Some are genetically stronger than others, you can't compare. It's how strong I can get within my limits. I can't be as strong as the Williams sisters. I don't want to have illusions. I try to go in the gym, do my job and get more power and get faster. You have to work hard or harder than anyone else if you want to be No. 1 and be up with other big girls."
The 23-year-old has had a very trying year physically, riddled with viruses ("you see me blowing my nose at every tournament") and various other aliments, including her knee injury ("I couldn't go up the stairs, I couldn't wear heels. It was frustrating") which her doctor said could keep her out for a couple of months.
"Last year I didn't have any problems, I played 100 matches and every week I was playing," she said. "This year I'm playing much less and I'm having problems non-stop. This is how life goes and you cannot predict anything. There is a no right or wrong way. Things happen for a reason and sometimes for no reason. You don't know what to expect. When you are not 100 percent, it's hard to have your best results."
Her 2008 results have been mixed, with only one title, albeit a significant one in Rome, and two Grand Slam semifinals, the Australian and French Opens. It was in Paris when she had her last great shot at No.1, up 3-1 in the third set over Ivanovic before she began playing defensively and allowed her compatriot to seize the day, the tournament and the top spot.
"Throughout the whole Roland Garros I was in pain and it was by luck that I got there," she said. "I'm strong in that way that I don't like to give up and retire. I always think that even if I'm hurt and in pain I can come out the winner. (But) she was the better player. It was a couple of points either way. She played a couple points where a big forehand went in rather than going out. But it was her time. Maybe my time will come later."
Maybe, but when? Could it be this week in L.A., in a weakened field where Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport all pulled out with knee injuries and Wimbledon finalist Serena Williams, who is still in the draw, is hobbled and says she's taking it day-by-day?
Unlikely, but now that Jankovic knows that No.1 is on the table, she might go all out. It doesn't sound like it, but Jankovic is as enigmatic as they come.
"It's shaking," she said of her knee. "I try to move and my leg kind of collapses. I'm a little scared when I have to run for certain balls because I can break something and be out a really long time. It's (a) really important part of (the) season with Olympics and U.S. Open coming up."
The Serbian has only been practicing for the past four days after tearing the meniscus in her left knee during Wimbledon and was less than thrilled to miss her normal summer beach vacation in order to rehab. Jankovic is relieved that her year isn't done, but isn't the mark of patience when it comes to dealing with life's many hurdles.
Maybe if her fortune takes a turn for the better, she can rediscover the bright side of life — as the No. 1 of course.
"You never know what tomorrow will bring," she said. "I want to be positive and have fun, which is the most important thing. I want to be healthy because then whether you win or lose matches, at least you tried, and you know you fought hard. But when you lose and are in pain and suffering, you go to treatment and it's hard to enjoy.
"People ask me, 'Where's your smile?' It's hard to smile when you are hurt and have problems. Smiling comes naturally for me, it has to be spontaneous and come from the inside."