Commentary

These players need to turn it around

Updated: April 23, 2009, 10:49 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Jelena JankovicMarwan Naamani/AFP/Getty ImagesJelena Jankovic has only one title this year after finishing 2008 ranked No. 1.

Hard courts, clay, indoors and out. Almost four months of the season have vanished and some pros aren't doing as well as they would have hoped. Yes, that includes Roger Federer, but the newlywed isn't exactly riding a major losing streak; he has landed in the semifinals or better in the past 19 majors.

Here are a few who need to up the ante heading into the French Open and Wimbledon.

Men

James Blake
2008 year-end ranking: 10
Current ranking: 17 (9-7 record in 2009)

More and more people are suggesting that Blake should dump longtime coach Brian Barker, including this tennis fan on a Web site: "Have you read Blake's book? He doesn't want to part with his coach because he has helped him through thick and thin."

We doubt Blake will be swayed by that not-so-subtle post, but something needs a fixin'.

He is No. 2 among U.S. players -- nope, he hasn't been caught just yet -- but has won only three of his past nine matches, and one was a so-called dead rubber against 341st-ranked Swiss Marco Chiudinelli in the Davis Cup.

Blake collapsed against fiery Chilean Fernando Gonzalez at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., conceding eight of the final nine games, and couldn't put away enigmatic Czech Tomas Berdych in Miami, up a set.

As the top seed at this month's U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, Blake got derailed in the first round by Guillermo Canas, who had lost his previous seven matches. Blake faces the unenviable task of trying to turn things around, and perhaps save his spot on the Davis Cup team, on dirt.

"I don't know why James hasn't been able to put it together," said ESPN commentator Jimmy Arias, a former French Open quarterfinalist. "But he hasn't been playing well, and I don't think he's confident."

Marat Safin
2008 year-end ranking: 29
Current ranking: 20 (6-7)

No one really expects Safin to win a major at this stage of his career. What they do expect is better than a 3-7 record in his past 10. Remember, even though he's on his farewell tour, the dapper two-time Grand Slam champion is only 29 -- and nine months away from 30.

Four of those seven defeats were three-set affairs, so the good news is Safin isn't tanking. Two were heartbreakers, beginning with a 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (3) third-round loss to Gael Monfils in Miami when Safin squandered two match points amid a raucous and mostly French partisan crowd. One went astray thanks to an errant short forehand.

"He still competes well and hits the ball hard," Monfils said.

The forehand imploded yet again in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters against fellow veteran Nicolas Lapentti in a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 7-6 (6) loss that's certain to go down as one of the best matches of 2009. Safin blew a 5-2 lead in the deciding set of the 3½-hour classic and couldn't convert three match points. He did thwart three consecutive match points on Lapentti's serve in the 12th game after earning a point penalty.

Safin staved off two more match points in the ensuing tiebreaker to make it 6-6, then dropped the next two points.

Oh boy.

So, Marat, what's it like being Dinara Safina's brother?

Ernests Gulbis
AP Photo/Andrew BrownbillErnests Gulbis was supposed to be one of the up-and-coming faces on the ATP Tour, but instead has a losing record in 2009.
Ernests Gulbis
2008 year-end ranking: 53

Current ranking: 42 (7-11)

Huge serve, big forehand, good hands. It can take time to put it all together when you're 20, but who would have forecast the baby-faced Latvian wouldn't reach the third round in 11 tournaments in 2009? In fact, the last time Gulbis reached the third round was last summer at the Cincinnati Masters.

This is the same guy who sauntered into the French Open quarterfinals in June, put the fright into eventual champion Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and led Andy Roddick by a set and a break on Roddick's home turf at the U.S. Open.

Gulbis, a former training partner of pal Novak Djokovic, dumped Austrian coach Karl-Heinz Wetter last month, though the move hasn't paid dividends. Gulbis succumbed in 63 minutes to unpredictable German Philipp Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo's opening round and squandered a set and a break advantage in his next tilt against Italian clay-court specialist Potito Starace at this week's pit stop in Barcelona.

Not forgotten

Feliciano Lopez hasn't taken off, unlike buddy Fernando Verdasco, in the wake of Spain's win over Argentina in December's Davis Cup final. Ace king Ivo Karlovic has featured in a solitary quarterfinal, and Berdych is becoming a journeyman, albeit a dangerous one.

Women

Jelena Jankovic
2008 year-end ranking: 1
Current ranking: 4 (14-5)

Jankovic and coach Ricardo Sanchez looked silly engaging in a war of words with Serena Williams prior to the Australian Open, when debate raged as to who was the true No. 1. If there was any doubt, it was answered in Melbourne, where Williams entered double digits in Grand Slam titles and Jankovic extended her drought following a fourth-round loss.

Jankovic blamed her offseason fitness regime, which included working with noted trainer Pat Etcheberry and visiting Mexico. She also endured eye-catching defeats in her openers in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami. An illness to her mom, Snezana, who's a constant on the tour and Jankovic's best friend, didn't help.

The fabulously named Andalucia Tennis Experience on clay brought respite, and Jankovic, teaming with a new fitness trainer from Spain, admitted the wide smile is back.

"Sometimes there are difficult periods when it's normal to be down a little bit, but those are the times you grow as a person and as a player," Jankovic, who overcame a 10-match losing streak in 2006, told her Web site. "It helps you and makes you stronger for the future. Since Marbella, I've just been practicing a lot, trying to get my movement back. The last few months that's what I've struggled with, as well as my timing, but I've been working really hard for the clay-court season."

Mom rejoins Jankovic on Fed Cup playoff duty in Spain this weekend and intends to make the trip to Stuttgart, Germany, too.

"Family is so important: My No. 1 priority," Jankovic said.

Shahar Peer
2008 year-end ranking: 38
Current ranking: 53 (11-7)

Peer, an Israeli, was thrust into worldwide spotlight in February when she was denied a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates and thus missed one of the biggest non-Grand Slam events on the women's calendar, the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. The women's tour criticized and fined the tournament, with Peer garnering support from colleagues (though Andy Roddick was the only pro to actually boycott the tournament).

On court, Peer is hoping to find the form that landed her in the top 15 and pushed Williams to 8-6 in the third set of their Australian Open quarterfinal two years ago. There's no shame in losing to the likes of steady Russian Elena Dementieva, Italian grinder Flavia Pennetta, Danish hotshot Caroline Wozniacki, blossoming Russian Vera Zvonareva, flourishing Belorussian Victoria Azarenka and multiple Grand Slam champ Venus Williams, though Peer didn't take a set off any of them in 2009.

Peer's brother, Shlomi, said it didn't help to cut ties with coaching guru Jose Higueras, who couldn't commit to more time with the 21-year-old in 2007. Peer's stint with 1994 Wimbledon winner Conchita Martinez didn't go as planned last year, and Peer is now teaming with Peruvian Pablo Giacopelli.

"She's working very hard and feels good about her tennis," Shlomi said. "Her tennis is coming back to what it was. Last year it was like a roller coaster, up and down, up and down. Of course Dubai stopped her momentum a little bit, and I hope it will never happen again. It made her stronger seeing the support she had around the world."

Alize Cornet
2008 year-end ranking: 16
Current ranking: 15 (10-9)

How different Cornet's season might have been had the bubbly 19-year-old converted one of the two match points she manufactured against eventual finalist and current No. 1 (roll eyes here) Dinara Safina in Australia. Safina pulled it out, depriving the devastated Frenchwoman of a maiden appearance in a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

"This was a really, really tough loss," Cornet said at the time. "I'm going to think about it for a long time."

Well, she still might be.

Cornet's record since is a paltry 5-7, including losses in four of her past five encounters. The latest came as the top seed at the Barcelona Ladies Open. Cornet's performance in a 6-0, 6-3 exit to 97th-ranked compatriot Stephanie Cohen-Aloro was so poor she muttered, "I am sh--." A shoulder injury at the start of the year hadn't flared up, she insisted.

Cornet brings her 0-4 Fed Cup record into this weekend's playoff series against the Slovak Republic.

Not forgotten

A titlist three times in 2008 and semifinalist on three other occasions, Agnieszka Radwanska has yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals this campaign, upstaged by her more aggressive (in game style, that is) sibling, Urszula. Little sis topped big sis in Dubai and knocked off 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova en route to a fourth-round appearance in Indian Wells.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.