Nadal, Jankovic parlay 2008 success into world No. 1 rankings
Out with the old, in with the new. That was the theme this past weekend with Rafael Nadal poised to unseat Roger Federer as the world No. 1 and Jelena Jankovic grabbing the top spot from Ana Ivanovic.
MONTREAL -- You often don't notice it when the Earth moves beneath your feet.
Without much fanfare, the tennis world had that feeling over the weekend. With Rafael Nadal's loss in the semifinals of the Cincinnati Masters on Saturday and Jelena Jankovic's defeat in the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup on Friday, professional tennis will have two new No. 1 players on the men's and women's sides, in the coming weeks.
The biggest change is on the men's side, of course, where Nadal will officially unseat Roger Federer on Aug. 18. The dethroning is the latest in a number of setbacks for Federer, who was ousted on Thursday from the Cincinnati tournament. A story that exemplifies the year he's having: While in Toronto two weeks ago for the Rogers Cup, Federer tried to check in to the Roger Federer Suite, but was rebuffed. Turns out it was reserved for someone else. Symbolism doesn't get much more obvious than that.
Federer's run had more than earned him a place in the tennis penthouse, however. He spent a record 236 weeks at the top, and he and archrival Nadal have been 1-2 for 159 weeks -- dating back to July 25, 2005 -- meaning he was feeling the glare of a hot, young talent for a long, long time.
The change will be more immediate on the women's side, as Jankovic will officially take the crown from fellow Serbian Ana Ivanovic on Aug. 11. Although she has yet to win a Grand Slam, Jankovic's ranking has been boosted by a win at the Tier I event in Rome and by reaching the semis at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.
On the women's side, there's seemingly a new coup every other month. The year started with Justine Henin at the top, but after her retirement in May, Maria Sharapova, Ivanovic and now Jankovic have risen to the fore, but without dominating. Venus and Serena Williams seem like the logical candidates to ride a solid run to the top, but neither has been able to play often enough to do so. All of the aforementioned have struggled this year with injuries.
"Nadal, he proved that he's an unbelievable player," said Dinara Safina, who rose to No. 7 after her win at the Rogers Cup here on Sunday. "I mean, he was No. 2 in the world and he won two Grand Slams this year. He really proved that he deserved to be there. And I think he's going to be there for a really long time. Jelena, she was playing consistent through last two years. She was [in] every tournament semifinal, every Grand Slam. She also deserves to be there."
Safina is making a good case for being the next candidate to storm the castle after beating unseeded Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday, a result that came hot on the heels of a win in Los Angeles.
"I think Dinara is now playing really well," Cibulkova said. "She won L.A. She played the final of Roland Garros. I think she's playing pretty good. She's a hard worker. So I think she can really make it."
"I never think about the rankings or look so far [ahead to] what can I do," Safina said. "I just want to stay healthy because, like you say, there are many girls that are injured. You start rushing, like you want to get there, then you forget about maybe your fitness. You start to play more tournaments because you want to go somewhere that your body cannot go. For me, I just want stay healthy and plan the schedule and give my 100 percent. God knows what can happen."
And that could mean a week-to-week rankings watch.
"It's an exciting time in general with the changing of the No. 1 players," said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, a three-time Grand Slam finalist. "With the women, Justine Henin retired, so it kind of put everything up for grabs. So it's a huge opportunity. For Jelena Jankovic, who has never been to the final of a Grand Slam, to say she's No. 1 in the world? What a thrill. She'd be the first to say, 'I don't know if I deserve it,' but she's got it for her consistency and her solid play. We're going to see a lot of flip-flopping in the next few months. It's going to be a race to the end of the year. [It's] a huge, huge opportunity for the top six, eight players in the world."
Jankovic was asked after her ouster here what a potential No. 1 spot would mean to her. She seemed to agree with Fernandez's assertion.
"Doesn't matter, the first ranking," she told reporters at a news conference. "I want to be healthy. I want to improve. I want to play tennis. I mean, I don't really think about No. 1 or whatever happens. If it's going to happen, it will happen. But at the moment, I don't deserve that spot. I am not in the best shape. I am not, you know, at my highest level."
It's also of some significance that the women's No. 1 title wasn't actually won. Sure, Nadal lost in the semis to get there in anticlimactic fashion, but before that he had put together an impressive five-tournament streak to overcome Federer, including winning both the French Open and Wimbledon. Jankovic, on the other hand, lost in the quarterfinals here while backing up to the top.
"Well, Justine Henin dominated for quite a bit of time and she was 1,700 points ahead of No. 2 when she retired, so we wouldn't be having this conversation if she hadn't retired unexpectedly," Fernandez said. "But again, there's a lot of depth. To me, the Williams sisters, when they're at their best, are the No. 1 and 2 players in the world, but they don't play enough. This year's been a little better and I think they're going to be in the running to finish No. 1 in the year."
What it all might turn out to be, when considered a year from now, is a changing of the guard in both men's and women's tennis. Out with the old, in with the new. The Earth, slowly turning.
"I think if you look at the top 10, OK, we have [the] Williams sisters," Safina said. "They're older than all of us, but mostly all of [us] are young. You would say Ana, Jelena, Sveta, Chakvetadze, Radwanska, we're all less than 25 years old. So for us, maybe it's still like some new experience. Justine, she was more mature. That's why for us it's something [of a] new experience. So maybe we're still a little bit young to deal with this or maybe just changing the whole top 10, a new generation."
Paul Grant is a deputy editor at ESPN.com.