Lights will only shine brighter for Serbia's Ivanovic, Jankovic
Jelena Jankovic and Ana 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.
Updated: October 2, 2007, 3:08 PM ETBy Peter Bodo | TENNIS Magazine
(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.
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"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."
Charles Baus/Icon SMIRanked in the teens in 2005 and 2006, Ana Ivanovic -- who turns 20 in November -- cracked the top five in 2007.
Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic The Courts of Babylon and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), A Champion's Mind. His new book on the 1975 Wimbledon final between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors will be out in June of 2015.