Jelena Jankovic. How do I even begin to describe Jelena Jankovic?
I first became acquainted with Jelena Jankovic seven years ago, when she still wore Reebok. From January to May 2006, Jankovic lost ten straight matches and considered quitting the sport to study at university. She turned her year, and arguably her career, around with a run to the semifinals of the US Open that year. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of Jankovic’s flair for the dramatics.
She found her way to the top of the rankings in 2008 with the polarizing figure of Ricardo Sanchez by her side. In fact, many would consider Jankovic a polarizing figure herself. Some found her diva antics and blunt humor amusing, while others found her brash and self-centered. She was the subject of a Serbian documentary about her life that same year, aptly titled Jelenin svet (Jelena’s World). While she was at the top of the game, that was almost how it felt; it was Jelena’s world, and we were just living in it.
However, in 2009, it all began to go wrong. Jankovic looked to “bulk up” in the offseason in an attempt to change her game to challenge for major titles. Jankovic was upset by Marion Bartoli in the fourth round in Melbourne that year; Bartoli hit 34 winners, compared to Jankovic’s 17 and won 81% of her first serve points, compared to Jankovic’s 56%. As a result, Jelena lost the No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams. She ended 2009 and 2010 at No. 8, but the ranking slide was quick from there. 2011 marked her first non-top 10 season since 2006 while 2012 was the first time she ended the year outside the world’s top 20 since 2005.
Jankovic comes into this year’s Australian Open seeded No. 22. She faced off against Johanna Larsson in the opening round, and despite a convincing 6-2, 6-2 scoreline, the match was anything but. Jankovic hit 16 winners to 23 errors in her opener, while the Swede hit a paltry six winners to go with a staggering 36 errors.
Qualifier Maria Joao Koehler, who impressed in a 7-5, 6-1 first round loss to Kim Clijsters a year ago in her Grand Slam main draw debut, came out firing en route to building a *4-1 lead in the first set. Jankovic would take a medical timeout on that change of ends, the first of many subplots throughout the match. She left the court for treatment, and returned with her entire abdomen taped.
Nothing would stop the momentum from the lefty from Portugal, who hit more winners than Jankovic in the opening set and benefitted from the Serb’s 17 unforced errors; Koehler would take the opener 6-2 in 41 minutes. Jankovic was close to tears early on in the second set, whether it was the injury, her poor play or both. Midway through, she began to crack some of her trademark backhands-down-the line with some authority but continued to trail for the majority of the set. Koehler was two points away from victory at *5-4 in the tiebreak, but Jankovic would win three points in a row to level the match at a set apiece.
The pair would trade breaks to open the third set, but this time it was Jankovic who would benefit from Koehler’s erratic play; the 20-year-old hit just two winners and a whopping 20 unforced errors in the third set to give Jankovic a 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 victory.
Jankovic was always good at finding a way to win matches when not playing her best. Despite that, this isn’t the Jelena Jankovic who came to be known as one of the most unique personalities on the WTA Tour over the past half-decade; she’s become a shell of the player she once was. One of the WTA’s masters of engaging the crowd when she was at her peak, Jankovic appeared to do anything but embrace the crowd’s support in this match. She’s been going through the motions for a long time now, and her days of a contender for major tournaments seem to be behind her. Jankovic hasn’t been enjoying herself on the court for a while, and it’s sad to see.
She’ll take on Ana Ivanovic in the third round, and if this were 2008, I’d say that match was highly anticipated. But this is 2013, and both are a world away from contending for major titles as they once were.