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Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Nadal, Jankovic reach No. 1 in vastly different ways

What does the No. 1 ranking mean? As of today, two very different things on the men's and women's tours.

The comparison is impossible to resist at the moment. Rafael Nadal and Jelena Jankovic clinched the year-end top spots on each tour, a first for both players. It's the second time this year the two have ascended together: In mid-August, they debuted at No. 1 at the same time.

But that's about all the two players had in common this season. Nadal's effort to surpass Roger Federer could best be described as Herculean. The Spaniard dominated the French Open like no one since Bjorn Borg, and he beat Federer, the five-time defending champion, in a final for the ages at Wimbledon. Throw in an Olympic gold medal, three Masters titles, an 8-2 record against Federer and Novak Djokovic and a trip to the Davis Cup final, and you have one of the finest seasons by a male pro in the Open era.

Jankovic? Well, she didn't lack the effort -- she has played 80 matches in 10 months -- but her season simply can't be compared to Nadal's. Jankovic reached one major final (the U.S. Open), compiled a 63-17 record and won four tournaments. However, three of them came in tennis' least-significant season, the post-U.S. Open indoor tour, when there's little more than money on the line.

Is this Jankovic's fault? No -- at least not yet. At 23, she's a late bloomer who likely never thought she would compete for major titles and thus focused on playing and winning as many matches as possible. That's a recipe for becoming a backdoor No. 1 on a tour in which the two biggest talents, Venus and Serena Williams, have always concentrated on Slam victories rather than rankings.

Now is the time for Jankovic to change her approach and pressure herself to beat the best players at the biggest tournaments. Will she? Watching her win three events over the past month, I've begun to think that earning the top ranking has both helped Jankovic's confidence and made her more ambitious. She hasn't seemed satisfied reaching semis and finals. For the first time, she's been willing to leave her defensive, ultra-consistent comfort zone to win those matches. Becoming No. 1, oddly enough, might just be a stepping-stone in Jankovic's career. Let's hope so, because the WTA needs hungry young stars.

Nadal's year-end No. 1 status, on the other hand, is the summit of a four-year journey full of grinding and grunting, brutally bashed ground strokes and nonstop running. If Jankovic has, for now, slightly diminished the significance of the WTA's top spot, Nadal has elevated the men's version. In his four-year reign at No. 1, Federer made being the best player in the world look effortless. Nadal -- with his tenacity, clay-court dominance and mental fortitude that allowed him to beat Federer in a heart-wrenching fifth set at Wimbledon -- has shown how much effort it really does take to be the best in tennis today. As Federer himself said when Nadal took over at No.1, "Look what he had to achieve to get it. … That's what I like to see."

That's what we'd like to see on both tours in 2009.