Serb and Return: Jelena Jankovic on the Comeback Trail
by René Denfeld in On The Grounds
Another clay season, another injury struggle for Jelena Jankovic. In 2015, the former World No. 1 was on her way back up the rankings after she made the final in Indian Wells, but a little while later, she found herself rehabbing her foot rather than sliding across the red dirt. The year 2016 sees the Serb once again dealing with health issues coming into one of her most favorite parts of the year, as a shoulder injury kept her out of competition during the past six weeks — while a thyroid cyst in caused a far bigger scare. René Denfeld caught up with the Serb at the Mutua Madrid Open after her first match since Miami.
Jelena Jankovic’s first match back after a month and a half away from competition did not go the way the Serb hoped — but she also didn’t have a lot of a expectations.
A shoulder injury forced Jankovic to retire from her opening match at Miami Open against Magda Linette after just one game — barely able to serve — back in March. Although she had been rehabbing diligently, the 31-year-old isn’t back to her former shape yet, and it certainly showed during her 6-4, 6-3 defeat against Sorana Cirstea in Madrid on Sunday.
“I had a bad injury with my back muscle which the muscle [that] helps you lift the arm, so I had a hard time,” Jankovic said in a one-on-one exclusive, post-match in Madrid. “I was doing a lot of therapy and rehab to come back, but it’s still very fresh and I’m still doing therapies and I’m still trying to — because I lost the power and the muscle and as you could probably see, I’m not serving as I normally would.
“It will take me some time to get the strength back — when I will be 100 percent, when my muscle is ready to commit to my serve at its fullest, I will do it. It’s still quite weak in order to go at it fully. With all that said, it’s not so easy, you know, playing matches and playing at this level, but I still tried my best and I fought hard. A lot of times, I had the break but I had a tough time holding my serve, which was a big handicap for me, [and] was very frustrating. Like I said, it will take me some time just to get back to normal again!”
Although Jankovic’s sole Grand Slam final came on a hard court at the US Open back in 2008, the clay holds a special place in her heart as she made two semifinals at Roland Garros and has historically enjoyed the wear, tear and battle on the surface. However, much like in 2015 when she struggled with foot and thigh injuries, her clay season got off to a bleak start when she was forced to pull out of some of her favorite events, including Charleston.
“It’s frustrating because I really love playing on clay, and in the past, I had so many good results on clay,” she said. “Every year, I look forward to playing on clay and unfortunately last year, I missed almost the whole season on clay and this year [is] pretty much the same. I hope to be a little bit better for the French Open — that I can be serving better and kind of complete my game a lot better — but for right now it’s still early. I cannot expect myself to play unbelievable and feel unbelievable when I haven’t done anything for a month.”
For Jankovic — as well as many other players — the question of when to return to tour after an injury layoff remains a difficult one. The balancing act between health, competitive spirit and returning to the tour as soon as possible remains a walk on the tightrope that can go awry easily.
“I think for me, I shouldn’t have even played this tournament because every day works in my favor, [when it comes to] recovering and getting stronger and getting a better range of motion. It’s unfortunate [that] for some things we need more time, and us tennis players, many times we’re very impatient. We just want to compete and we just really miss the courts and doing what I love to do — it’s not easy just doing therapy all day. It’s tough mentally, knowing that we have to start basically from zero again, and it’s tough on the physical side because you’ve lost quite a lot of muscles.
“I wasn’t able to run — for two weeks, I wasn’t able to move because I had pain breathing under my ribs. I make two steps forward and I start to feel like I’m choking and it’s really uncomfortable; I had trouble sleeping, too. I could not turn and it was a really big discomfort, so with all that I wasn’t able to train properly [and] not able to use my arm — and not able to wash my hair with the right arm!”
During her match against Cirstea, Jankovic broke the Romanian’s serve in the second set to lead 3-2, but admitted afterwards that she feels she’s trying to improvise due to her restricted serving and lack of matchplay — adding that she found herself overthinking her shot selection too much.
“It’s expected and normal for someone that’s coming back from injury — to get into that rhythm again, to get match tough again,” she said. “When everything comes automatic, you know what you’re doing, but [now it’s] ‘Oh, I have so many thoughts in my head and I don’t know where to begin or where to end, how to end.’ You have doubts, ‘Will I be able to serve for an hour and a half?’ ‘Will my arm sustain all the efforts, all the hitting, all the pounding?’ It’s a lot of thoughts going on, but like I said, it’s quite normal and quite common and I just need to go through this process in order to come back.”
While Jankovic’s shoulder issue certainly put a dent into her season, it paled compared to the other health scare she received when doctors found an enlarged thyroid cyst as a byproduct of checking the injury that forced her to retire at the Miami Open.
“When they did a scan in Miami, an MRI to check my strain, they caught the lower part of my thyroid gland and they found some cyst which was quite a big size, bigger than it should be and what’s normal,”said the World No. 23, with her voice quickly lowering as the subjected arose. “That was another concern, [and] it was quite a stressful situation for about a week until I have undergone through all the analysis and tests and blood work. In the end, they did a biopsy and they removed the cyst with a needle and luckily, it was benign.
“It was a very traumatic week for me because, at some point, the doctor said that I might have cancer and it was a scary thought — I don’t think anyone likes to hear that. We always worry about the tennis, about the lifestyle, [but] we keep going, keep traveling, keep working hard — we forget sometimes to listen to our body and it’s also maybe hard to feel some symptoms.
Luckily for Jankovic, it didn’t turn out to be threatening. Irrespective of that, it was a stressful week for the Serb, who wasn’t just dealing with an injury any more — but something that felt far more dangerous than a shoulder issue.
“Most of the common symptoms like fatigue and with all the traveling and the hitting, the competing, it’s normal to be exhausted and fatigued,” she said. “They ask, ‘Are you sleeping well?’ and with all the timezones and the jet lag, different hotels, it’s also tough to sleep well. Many times, you don’t know what time it is in the place you’ve been and going to the next — it’s a shock for your biological clock, too. You’re constantly changing and trying to adapt — so with all that said, it’s tough to pick out things that give you an alarm that something is going wrong with you.
“I’m still recovering from [the shoulder injury], and then having that thing removed and checked and having that scary thought in my head for a little over a week until all the tests came — it felt like months. I was praying to God that it will be okay, because it felt like the end of the world for me at the moment. I was only thinking of recovering and getting back to playing tennis and then I was like, ‘Oh my God — it’s not anymore tennis, it’s now I’m fighting for something else.’ It’s another battle, but luckily everything turned out good.”
Despite the early loss in Madrid, the Serb was in good spirits as she looked ahead to the coming weeks when the tour will move on to Rome, one of Jankovic’s favorite places — even though she knows that it’s going to take a while for her to regain her form.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Jankovic said, with the experiences of the past six weeks behind her. “It will take some time — I cannot improve and get back to shape, get back to playing and hitting well and competing at a high level in a couple of days or a week. It takes some time and a lot of grinding day after day in order to feel comfortable [and] in order to get your rhythm back, get your shots in order, complete your game, feel comfortable, [and] feel confident. Then, I will be where I want to be.”