(Editor's note: This story first ran in the October issue of TENNIS Magazine.)
Nobody can adequately explain how it happens. It appears to be inadvertent rather than calculated, a manifestation of synchronicity rather than the fruit of government initiative or the globalization of tennis. Whatever the reason, it works roughly like this: One day you wake up and discover that your off-the-tennis-radar nation -- say, Sweden in the mid-1970s or Belgium in late 1990s -- has emerged as a superpower.
Suddenly, you've gone from tennis backwater to international feel-good story, and people roll their eyes in disbelief when you shrug and explain that there's no particularly logical or compelling explanation. Tennis happens. And it has happened most recently in the tennis outpost of Serbia, from which three players have emerged to rock the world rankings: Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. (Janko Tipsarevic, another Serb climbing the rankings, cracked the top 50 this summer.) Between them, they have written some of the major story lines in the game this season and, given that the oldest among the three is the not entirely Methuselan Jankovic, 22, the narrative is likely to continue.
Djokovic has more or less arrived; he's known, feared and respected as a top-five player. Jankovic and Ivanovic are slightly less known, and in some ways their stories are more interesting. Although we have just lived through the Serbian Summer of Love, celebrating the way the rising tide of tennis in that small, war-torn nation has lifted all three boats, the two women are more fascinating for the ways in which they're different rather than similar -- ways that go beyond their rival Nicole Vaidisova's crisp, bare-bones evaluation of their games: "Jelena tries to keep the ball in play, but Ana goes for her shots. They're very different players, but both, in different ways, are very good."
Jankovic and Ivanovic, 19, are the "vitches" (as in the "vic" at the end of their names) who made our summer of 2007. They were both inside the WTA Tour's top five by the end of Wimbledon (Jankovic at No. 3 and Ivanovic at No. 5), even though they had started the year outside the top 10. They are, to some degree, marching in lock step. And while both have dark hair and are from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, that's about where the resemblances end.
Jankovic is a grinder and retriever par excellence. Lean and leggy, she has the broad, high cheekbones, pleasantly oval face and small features of a princess of the Asian steppes. She covers the court with a deceptively nimble, crablike scuttle. Her two-handed backhand gives any opponent conniptions, but her ball and chain is a powdery serve that ensures that she has to play a lot of defense before she can air out her offensive skills.
This is a problem Jankovic intends to fix, and just how well the repair goes will determine her future as a top player.
"Because of my ground strokes, I can cover the court even if I'm hitting bad second serves and they attack me," she says. "But I would like to get more control, more sitters to finish off, more easy points. I'm trying to add some power as well as some accuracy."
Ivanovic is a curvaceous, large-boned, conventional beauty (since the French Open, anaivanovic.com ranks among the most visited Web sites for female athletes) with a dusky complexion and a broad, friendly face. Charm is her calling card, and gerunds are her rallying cry: "I am very exciting to be playing so well. … I am very exciting about Wimbledon." But don't be fooled by her wide-eyed manner. This girl is all business, a bread-and-butter slugger whose game has heft and sting. Think of her as a younger, perhaps slightly less powerful version of Jennifer Capriati. But she also has a touch of the lumbering quality Capriati never quite shed, which will always raise questions about her mobility.
Of the two Serbs, Ivanovic acquitted herself better on the large stages they shared this summer. Although she froze up against Justine Henin in the French Open final (Henin had disposed of Jankovic in the semis), it took Venus Williams, the eventual champion, to usher her out of the Wimbledon semifinals, 6-2, 6-4. Ivanovic offered no apologies: "I have to learn how to deal with [big matches] better."
Evaluating the two women, whom he has covered since they were tennis toddlers, Vojin Velickovic of Belgrade's Sportski Zurnal confesses to being surprised by how far they've come this year. He suggests that each time one of them wins, the job becomes that much easier for her counterpart. He believes Ivanovic is the better player at the moment, more capable of threatening the top women with her powerful game.
"Jelena is maybe lacking something in her confidence to play the big names in the big tournaments," Velickovic says. "This is a psychological hurdle for her."
Jankovic and Ivanovic developed their games in a pool -- figuratively, in Jelena's case, literally, in Ana's. When Ivanovic was a youngster, the Belgrade athletic club where she trained and played sports could not afford to heat its Olympic-size swimming pool in the winter. Club officials decided to have it drained and lay down carpet, and that's where Ivanovic got her first taste of indoor tennis. Practicing there made her game lethal because the walls of the pool were just 18 inches from the sidelines of the court. Down the line, often the most difficult shot to hit, was the only way to go.
The key event in Ivanovic's junior life was when she came to the notice of Dan Holzmann, a German entrepreneur based in Switzerland. A tennis fan, Holzmann says he resolved to show that he could work with human beings instead of merely selling products. His teaching pro told him about the Ivanovics and Ana's potential, and he promptly brought them to Switzerland, where Ana, then 14, auditioned her game. It took Holzmann just two hours to decide to manage her. Half a million Holzmann dollars later, Ivanovic was groomed and ready to earn money of her own on the pro tour. Within two years of her 2003 pro debut, she had paid back the seed money Holzmann invested in her. Holzmann, meanwhile, was cutting deals to further enrich them both, as Ivanovic was suddenly a sizzling-hot WTA property.
Holzmann saw one way for Ivanovic to assert her value and status: by ending her early relationship with Nike, where Maria Sharapova was the once and future queen bee. Ivanovic now has a chance to become the Sharapova of adidas.
"Changing to adidas was the most important move Ana made," Holzmann says.
Fate was also kind to Jankovic. She was discovered early in her junior career by Nick Bollettieri and brought from Belgrade to Bradenton, Fla., on a full scholarship. At the time, Jankovic's now-celebrated opinion gene had not yet kicked in; she was shy and perpetually uncomfortable. Unlike the legions of home-schooled -- no-schooled? -- tennis prodigies wandering around at Bollettieri's, Jankovic attended a public junior high.
While she was socially awkward, Jankovic's game blossomed amid the talent pool of young Bollettieri recruits. The academy proved an ideal setting for her emerging competitive drive.
"The best thing about the academy is that every day we could have practice matches," Jankovic says. "We would go out to the back courts and just play. It didn't matter who it was, 12-year-olds played against 20-year-olds. I learned at an early age to fight and compete, I got that competitive spirit."
Jankovic's joie de combat has been on display this year as she has established herself as a consistent force on tour. Rolling into Wimbledon, she had reached the single-year 50-win mark faster than any woman since Chris Evert in 1974. Her results included that semifinal loss to Henin in Paris, which was expected. Her loss to Marion Bartoli, the eventual finalist, a few weeks later in the fourth round at a rain-plagued Wimbledon, was not.
"It was my worst match of the year, with so many breaks and delays [because of rain]," Jankovic stewed. "It was good for her that she could recover and come back stronger, but sad for me that I came back to the court worse and worse."
That explanation did not seem wholly adequate and echoed Jankovic's darkest hour: her 2006 U.S. Open semifinal in which she came unglued over a line call while leading Henin by a set and 4-2. Jankovic admits now what everyone then saw: That in engaging the umpire in a testy, protracted exchange, she lost her composure. She played the rest of the set like a woman with other things on her mind (umpiricide, for starters) and let the opportunity slip away. Jankovic says she's a changed player since that day but also admits to needing to keep her emotions in check.
"I am quite an emotional person," Jankovic says. "I show how I feel. I smile a lot and when I want to cry, I look sad. Sometimes, in a match, I will get tears in my eyes and I say to myself, 'This is crazy, Jelena, you cannot even see the ball. You know, focus now, focus on the tennis. Forget the crying.'"
"We [Serbs] had one dark period of history, but before and after that, our people, especially our young people, were like the young ones everywhere," Velickovic adds. "[Ivanovic and Jankovic], they don't put on a nice face for show on purpose. They are proud of being Serbs and want to show it. They want to show that Serbia is much more than the country with the bad biography."
The horrors of the ethnic cleansing and civil war that tore up Serbia in the 1990s are largely memories relegated to a past the Serbs aren't eager to talk about. As Jankovic says, "Despite the things that happened, the war and the criminal things, I love Serbia. I have had offers to leave there, to change my nationality, but I will never do that. I think our athletes are ambassadors for our country. It's part of our job, and all three of us [including Djokovic] do a good job."
Jankovic and Ivanovic present the world two distinct faces, although it's a reach to try to make them representative of a larger Serbian character. They may be just the distinct visages of two alluring and radically different personalities -- an Eastern European answer to Belgium's Henin-Kim Clijsters polarity. If Ivanovic is the big gun when it comes to her tennis game, Jankovic has loosened up over the years, to the point where she's almost a loose cannon -- a garrulous and sometimes feckless truth-teller. She doesn't mince words and often acts as a news-conference entertainer. Talking about playing mixed doubles with Jamie Murray at Wimbledon before the two won the event, she laughed, "I'm not a good doubles player. I don't think I'm going to be useful for him. He made a bad choice, I think."
"Jelena is more … charismatic, in her words and behavior," Velickovic says. "Maybe she wants to be different from the other girls. Ana, maybe she's more like the nice girl. She never wants to say anything that could offend someone, but Jelena is not so conscious of that kind of thing. Ana always thinks of what to say in a diplomatic way."
"Jelena is two years older than me," Ivanovic says. "We never played many tournaments together back home and we lived in different parts of the city, so we never practiced with each other. We had different ways, different roads, and now we both found our way and are doing well. That's the most important thing."
The path the young women found led both of them back to Serbia. Compared to other famous expat tennis players like Ivan Lendl and Monica Seles, these women are reverse commuters, discovering the joys of home after having been away for so long. After the French Open and Wimbledon, Ivanovic returned home (that is, her parents' house) to rest and enjoy Belgrade. Jankovic, who says she's "rediscovering" Serbia, recently bought a house there. She'll also continue her studies at a Belgrade university where she's currently a sophomore.
"When I go to the classroom the students look at me with eyes that say, 'Oooooohhhh, she's sitting there!'" Jankovic says. "But fame is something I don't take too seriously. I don't really get it, to be honest. And that makes me a little embarrassed."
Jankovic and Ivanovic should get used to fame and its peculiarities. There's no escaping the kind that they'll continue to earn in the years to come, as they travel the world putting a new face on their tiny homeland.
Peter Bodo is a senior editor for TENNIS Magazine and contributor to ESPN.com.