A Fan's View: Jelena Jankovic
Love her or hate her, Jelena Jankovic is as entertaining as a tennis player can be. The former No. 1 from Serbia is in the midst of a late-career resurgence that has put her back in front of the cameras, lights and microphones. If you're a fan of baffling self-indulgent quotes, then Jankovic is your player.
But personality alone won't keep you relevant. Jankovic has compiled an outstanding career highlighted by her potent down-the-line backhand and her ability to be the annoying gnat buzzing around top women's players -- including Venus and Serena Williams, against whom she's 10-15 combined.
Jankovic has been on fire both on and off the court this week at the Family Circle Cup, and it was time that we got to the bottom of the "Cult of Jelena" -- and her enthusiastic and loyal fanbase. I spoke to long-time Jankovic fan René Denfeld, a 26-year-old German from Frankfurt who was drawn into watching and playing tennis during the hey-day of his childhood hero Steffi Graf.
Although he's currently busy wrapping up his meteorology studies, he'll always make time to see The National live or take an opportunity to completely shank an overhead himself (and then watch someone on the WTA or ATP tour do the same). You can follow René on Twitter @renestance and read his very funny blog Tennis and Tunes, which produced this wonderful JJ/Beyonce tribute.
SI.com: How did you become a Jankovic fan?
Denfeld: I first really noticed her during the DFS Classic final in Birmingham, England against Maria Sharapova in 2005. Her fluid game and athleticism stuck with me. Little did I know about the JJ-coaster on and off-court.
SI.com: So you knew nothing about her personality?
Denfeld: Her personality wasn't really on my radar at first; it barely is for any player. I can't shape an opinion solely based on what a player does in a presser or off-court; I usually take a look at what they offer on court first. But I'm not going to lie, the fact that she brought so much to the table from so many different angles certainly solidified my appreciation for her over the years.
Plus there was no social media at that time. The focus was on the Belgians and the Williams sisters, and Jankovic hadn't done enough on court for many people to sit up and notice, or really take a closer look at what she's like personally, or notice JJ the entertainer in the press room rather than JJ the tennis player.
SI.com: Explain the "Cult of Jelena" to those who might not understand why this woman from Serbia holds such a special place in current WTA culture.
Denfeld: Jelena Jankovic. A myth. A legend. She who brings the light and the joy. I don't even know where to begin.
No, in all seriousness, much like her recently finished San Diego mansion, Jankovic's personality is genuinely larger than life. Whether it be her outbursts on court (these days generally directed at her poor brother, Marko), grinning from ear to ear when she's hitting the ball well, her decade-lasting cold, applying glitter to her "cement-like" hairdo or her over-the-top press conferences or post-match interviews -- Jankovic doesn't do middle of the road. And then there's also that rivalry between her and fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic who seemed to ensure that Serbia would succeed Belgium in terms of "somewhat unlikely European country turned WTA stronghold" in 2007-'08.
Jankovic lives in her own little bubble most of the time. She loves the attention, relishes the spotlight (in contrast to Ivanovic) and knows how to work it. And whether you like her or not, the WTA is a more interesting and entertaining place when Jankovic plays well. Even though the "ingredients" to the "Cult of Jelena" have changed since she rose to prominence in 2006 -- her mother Snezana, notorious for drinking a sip of water every time her daughter won a point, and eccentric coach Ricardo Sanchez no longer feature in Jankovic's team -- Jankovic still knows how to up the ante when it comes to drama and antics on court (see Jankovic dangling from the umpire's chair most recently in Indian Wells) even though she faces some stiff competition from Mademoiselle Alize Cornet. But her athletic abilities and court coverage often lead to pretty entertaining tennis as her game contrasts to a lot of the big hitters on the WTA nicely.
SI.com: I'm going to have to ask you a very difficult question: What's your favorite Jelena moment.
Denfeld: Something possibly slightly less expected -- her semi-finals against Venus Williams in Stuttgart in 2008. Ridiculous match from both women. The entire highlight reel is a treat, but Jankovic grabbed the second set in trademark JJ fashion. Jankovic won 6-7 (8), 7-5, 6-2.
Highlights of the match:
SI.com: Now here's the more fun question: What are your favorite off-court moments:
Rene: Three stand out.
1. Her ridiculous story about running out of gas on the freeway in Cincinnati in 2011 and none of the other players stopping to help her. Here's how Jankovic told it:
On our way to the site, we were driving, me and my coach and my mom and my sparring [partner], and all of a sudden she was supposed to turn on the highway and then the car completely stopped. Then my mom was like, Oh, this car is not working. We were like, What do you mean it's not working? It just stopped. It's not working. Something is wrong with it. We looked, and it was zero gas inside the car. I was like, 'Oh, my God. Great. I have 20 minutes before my practice session.'
Luckily the gas station was like, you know, two-minute walk. So me and my coach ran out to the gas station and bought that thing, that gallon that that you fill up. We kind of didn't know how you open this nozzle thing and stuff like that because it never happened. Then we ran out and then he put it in and it was okay. Then we got going.
But there were some players passing through and looking at us in the middle of the road, like, What is she doing up there? Pretty funny... When I came to the site, there was all these people that wanted autographs, and I'm like, 'Sorry guys; I'm late for practice. I got to go.' I went straight to the court. They were all laughing. A lot of people found out because they saw me in the middle of the road. I'm like, 'How do you know I got left out without gas?' I saw you. I was like, 'Why you didn't stop to drive me back?'
2. When she described herself as a fire-breathing dragon during a press-conference in Charleston in 2012.
Q. Jelena, we talked about this a little bit in the last press conference. But do you realize how entertaining you are out on the Court?
Jankovic: Do I realize what?
Q. How entertaining?
Jankovic: Am I entertaining?
Jankovic: For real? Maybe, but I'm going to tell you something. It's like as soon as I step off the court I'm like really goofy, and I just like to laugh and talk and I don't know. But when I step on the court, it's like I turn into a totally different person. It's like I become, I don't know how to say, the dragon that spits fire every time. It's like it really is. I make a mistake and I'm like spitting fire, like yelling and doing all this. But it's really like two personalities.
SI.com: Aside from her dramatics, talk about her game. Do you consider her a typical counter-puncher?
Denfeld: I'd actually consider Jankovic the absolute blueprint of a counter-puncher (which unfortunately is a slightly derided term in tennis circles I find). She has great speed around the court -- she's good at redirecting pace and turning defense into offense, and her serve, even though it's fairly one dimensional, has been packing a bit more of a punch since her No. 1 heydays of 2008. As far as I'm concerned the most critical element to her game in 2014 is to take the ball half a second earlier and defend the baseline by hook or by crook. Jankovic still tends to go down the line off of both wings more often than other players, but unless she's precise enough in terms of depth and width, it's easier to catch her off guard because she's just half a step slower than six or seven years ago, and she'll occasionally just float back some average slice, particularly off of the forehand side.
The cry for more firepower that has always come from various people I understand, but I'm not sure that's ever really going to happen to an extent that she's going to hit the cover off of the ball. And if I were her coach it's not something I'd go for, either. Taking the ball a little earlier feels like a much more natural evolution of her game rather than hitting the ball harder. Her backhand is super solid and her backhand down the line is Jankovic's own favourite shot of any player anyways.
There's still work to be done on her instinct when it comes to sneaking into the net at the right time and erase all wrist from her forehand. If you want a pretty solid indicator of how Jankovic feels on court, look at her forehand, particularly down the line. If she's hitting winners on that side, it'll often be a good day at the office. If she's spinning it in and struggled getting past the service box, it says a fair deal about how she's elsewhere mentally or doesn't feel great physically. Having said that, it's nowhere near as much of a liability as it was during much of 2011 and 2012.
SI.com: What's more surprising to you: That Jankovic was No. 1 or that she's never won a Grand Slam?
Denfeld: I will try to evade this question by saying the biggest surprise to me (and others, e.g. Justine Henin) is that she's not been able to capitalize on the momentum she build towards the end of 2008. Before the 2009 season begun I genuinely thought she was in with a massive chance to do something at Roland Garros or the US Open, particularly the latter in hindsight with all the madness in the women's draw that year. Then the ill-fated 'bulk up' saga took place during the 2008-'09 off-season and Jankovic looked a pretty out of it throughout much of 2009 despite winning Cincinatti and Marbella.
So in summary I think her becoming No. 1 with the heavy schedule she played back in her prime was less surprising than her not winning a Slam. But I'm not particularly surprised she hasn't won a slam. Her focus just tends to wane or fluctuate, as often demonstrated particularly when it comes to her use of the challenges. Only Jankovic could end up with "no challenges remaining" in the first game of a final set. However, I'm still holding out for a Schiavone-esque French Open run in the autumn of her career.
SI.com: What do you think motivates her? I genuinely did not think she would ever get back into the top 10 after her post-2008 slump.
Denfeld: Well someone's gotta pay the bills for that San Diego Castle. Funnily enough I wrote on that in early 2012 when her ranking really started to dip and she decided to hire Zeljko Krajan of all people on a trial basis as her coach -- said position was an absolute hot seat at that time anyways.
I think her motivation is unfinished business and seeing women three or four years her senior winning Grand Slams and holding a pretty tight grip on the WTA tour at the moment.
And she's found a coaching set-up that seems to work for her (whatever set-up hurling verbal abuse at your brother is but nevermind) after two years of wilderness. Jankovic has finally started to enjoy the hard yards on the practice courts unlike when she was younger and making it to the WTA Championships in 2013 must've felt like a pretty big reward considering how down and out she looked at the beginning of last year. She certainly seems to enjoy being back where she presumably thinks she belongs -- and so do I. Everything's just a little more entertaining and interesting when she's around and hitting the ball well.