“Rivals,” my high school gym teacher once said, “always hate each other. Mac does not like PC. Coke does not like Pepsi. Competition makes the world go round!”
Had he been a tennis fan at the time, he might have added Serbian rivals Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to his list of those between whom little love was lost.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, Ivanovic and Jankovic were the fire and ice of the WTA Tour’s elite. Ana was the big-hitter with an on-court effusiveness that was as jarring as it was endearing. Not to say that the counter-punching Jankovic was reserved; she saved her quirky personality and for the pressroom, where she gave quotes that continue to defy explanation.
Both hailed from the war torn city of Belgrade. Both became famous in their home country. Both wanted to be the best.
With few other compatriots, isolation combined with a singular goal could have bonded these young women together. The Italian and Czech Fed Cup teams are shining examples of on-court camaraderie in an individual sport. Off the court? The guest list at Elena Dementieva’s wedding was a “who’s who” of Russian tennis (Vera Dushevina caught the bouquet).
Yet, there is something about countries that boast only two talented players. Perhaps that it serves as a microcosm for the game itself, the idea of a dual between two players and only one can emerge victorious, intensifies what could otherwise be a friendly rivalry. Whatever the reason, like Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin before them, the relationship between Ivanovic and Jankovic was always cool at best. Never overtly friendly, the two had ways of reminding fans and media where the two women stood with one another.
After scoring a win over her rival in Madrid a few years ago, Jelena was seen mocking Ana’s signature fist pump:
Upon seeing it, Ana quipped, “…Sport doesn’t build character, it shows it.” Far from contrite, Jelena defended the gesture and struck out against players who fist pump “in the player’s face, and especially after not winning a point [but] after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don’t think that’s fair play.”
For all of their differences, Ana and Jelena ended up having two fairly similar careers.
At their peaks, they fought for the No. 1 ranking at the 2008 French Open. Jankovic squandered a third set lead and Ivanovic went on to win her only Slam title. From there, she promptly entered a slump that persists to this day; she has only made one Slam quarterfinal in the last (going on) five years.
Jankovic eventually wrested the top spot from her rival and went on a late-season tear to finish the year atop the rankings. A move to change her game in order to better compete for majors saw her not only remain slamless, but also caused her to tumble from the game’s elite.
This year’s Australian Open saw the two play one another for the first time at a Slam since that fateful French Open encounter. Far from the penultimate round, the rivals were seeded outside the top 10 and competing for a spot in the fourth round, where the winner would take on the much-higher ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.
Ostensibly, the stakes were as high as ever as each woman strives to retain relevancy on a Tour that has moved on without them. Once highly marketable stars, the rivals were relegated to Hisense Arena for a competitive, though more lighthearted, battle. While showing flashes of their former brilliance, the two shared a laugh several times during Ivanovic’s two-set victory. With that, the “Serbian Sisters” wordlessly confirmed the news that they had buried the hatchet.
Reflecting on their frosty past, Jankovic mused, “Back then we were competing for No. 1 and we both wanted what we never achieved and it was different circumstances.” In the heat of the moment, it was easy to see things less clearly, but in retrospect, Jelena poignantly describes the fate of the rivalry with her compatriot, one that was never truly realized.
But rather than dwelling on what might have been, it is comforting to see the two former foes together, now able to laugh and reminisce about their time at the top.
For what seems like years, fans of women’s tennis have been looking for a legitimate rivalry at the top of the game. They may finally get their wish with the compelling rivalry emerging between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
It was difficult to label head-to-head a rivalry given Azarenka’s dominance of Sharapova this season. However, the Russian finally turned the tables this weekend , for one match at least, in the final at Stuttgart to capture her 25th career title to match the birthday she celebrated a few weeks ago. The two had met twice already in championship matches this year and at least one of them has played for the title at all of the major tournament thus far in 2012.
Sharapova’s run to the Stuttgart crown was rather impressive, particularly on clay. She defeated Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in consecutive matches, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory over the World No. 1.
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said. “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her. “
If Sharapova can continue to keep up her end of the bargain, women’s tennis could have its version of the ATP’s Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. The potential is certainly there for many reasons. One of which is their match ups have risen in intensity. They brushed shoulders while crossing the net during a changeover in the Stuttgart final, drawing a small reaction from both, but exchanged a civil handshake at the match’s conclusion. Both are fierce competitors and currently at the top of their game which are important ingredients in any rivalry. They also have players like Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams pushing them to be better.
Azarenka is the emerging star while Sharapova is a legend of her sport, both on and off the court. Azarenka wins matches with her natural athletic ability while Sharapova uses exquisite ball striking and a burning competitive desire to will herself to victory. The contrasts and similarities are there, so is the motivation and after Sunday’s somewhat unexpected result, anticipation is building already for their next encounter and the numerous one that are sure to follow.