Commentary

The bearable lightness of being Jelena Jankovic

With pristine movement, Jelena Jankovic is one of the most consistent performers on tour. However, fitness is a separate issue. Until she learns to carry herself with the bravado of a heavyweight, the Serb may never reach her full potential.

Updated: April 29, 2008, 9:59 AM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Jelena JankovicAP Photo/Jean-Marie BlaseAt times, Jankovic commands the court. On other occasions, her disbelief is very palpable.
The energy emanating from world No. 5 Jelena Jankovic is rare. In one sense, she is exceptionally driven. This, after all, is a woman who has played 26 tournaments over the past year -- quite a workload compared to the likes of Justine Henin's 15, Maria Sharapova's 15 and Serena Williams' 12.

But the other side of Jankovic can best be described as flip. On the court, she is prone to occasional bouts of laughter at her own foibles -- particularly when matches go longer than anticipated. One example took place several weeks ago during her second-round match at the Sony Ericsson Open, when she fought back Saturday night from a 1-5 third-set deficit versus Sofia Arvidsson to win a concluding tiebreaker 11-9. That match ended past midnight. At 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Jankovic told reporters she was tossing and turning in bed, hardly the best state for someone who had to play another match that afternoon. But she won that one handily, and a few days later went on to reach the final against Serena Williams. When you play Jankovic, said Williams, "you always have to be on your toes."

From week to week, Jankovic regularly posts fine results. Consider just a few highlights from 2008: semifinal appearance at the Australian Open, semifinal at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, final in Miami, semis in Dubai, quarterfinal in Doha.

Building off what appears to be fairly solid physical fitness, the keys to Jankovic's success are movement and solid counterpunching skills. Her backhand is rock-solid, particularly when she drives it down the line. And her fighting skills have come through on many occasions.

Yet at the same time, Jankovic's mental fitness is another issue. There's a beguiling emotional fatalism surrounding this articulate 23-year-old.

Perhaps this is the result of the factors surrounding her ascent. In early 2006, Jankovic's record was 1-10. She strongly considered quitting the tour. From there, things turned around for Jankovic, who went 44-17 the rest of the year, highlighted by a win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon and a semifinal showing at the U.S. Open. Less than two years after hitting an emotional bottom, her ranking had climbed nicely from 22 at the end of 2005 to No. 3 at the end of '07.

Jankovic comes off as an accidental tourist among the elite, a player who is in some ways shocked by her arrival in such fast company. She reaches a late stage in a tournament and is often beaten handily, as was the case versus Sharapova in the Australian Open semis. In the semifinal at Indian Wells, up against her fellow Serb, Ana Ivanovic, Jankovic fought hard in the first set, losing it in a tiebreak, but then disintegrated in the second. And versus Serena Williams in Miami, she again showed trademark grit in fighting off seven match points, never did it look like she could win the match. In all of those defeats, it was hard to determine how Jankovic was going to grab hold of the match and win it.

While Jankovic offers an engaging brand of perspective -- she regularly jokes with reporters about everything from food to her spending habits -- there's also a bit of self-protection involved in her worldly demeanor. Get that high up the mountain and while perspective makes her in some ways a better human being, it doesn't necessarily aid the quest to capture big titles. Perspective has hardly aided the likes of Serena, Henin or Sharapova.

[+] EnlargeJelena Jankovic
AP Photo/Mark BakerJelena Jankovic has reached at least the quarterfinals in all eight events she has played in this season but has failed to win a title.

This notion of an ugly ducking turned into a swan is faintly reminiscent of recently retired Anastasia Myskina, another agile counterpuncher who suddenly found herself arriving in the top 10 but never quite carried herself with the swagger of a heavyweight, and in some ways, emotionally imploded amid the spotlight. Like Jankovic, Myskina was an endearing, likable person. Who can't help but admire a hardworking late bloomer?

But perhaps Jankovic can learn from Myskina's example. For starters, now that she's clearly established herself as someone who can win lots of matches, Jankovic needn't commit to playing so many events. "You want to be fresh for the majors," said Brad Gilbert, a man who surprised the world when he cracked the top 10 and has admitted he played too much in fear that the spell of good tennis would wear off.

Secondly, Jankovic needs to beef up her serve. The second serve in particular is quite attackable. Finally, a forceful (yet kind) coach would be a major asset. Still just 23, she's got lots of great tennis ahead of her. Does she think this, too?

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.