Quantity or Quality? The JJ Paradox

In Charleston, Jelena Jankovic straddled the fine line between quantity of win and quality of opponent.

In the immediate aftermath of any match, circumstances (both external and internal) are analyzed to the point where nearly all results would appear to warrant an asterisk.

This player was injured. That player was tired. His ranking was too high. Her ranking was too low.

Valid as they may be, we eventually forget those excuses and move on to the next match with a simple truth: “a win is a win.” Except, of course, when history repeats itself, the analysis becomes the same, and excuses become battle cries.

Such has been the case for Jelena Jankovic. Once a World No. 1 and Grand Slam finalist, “JJ” had been in a prolonged slump for the better part of 18 months, one that seemed to stem from a complacency that grew into a crisis of confidence. A true offensive counterpuncher, Jankovic relied on a blend of relentless retrieving and smart shot selection to rise to the top of the rankings in 2008.

But after attempts to alter her game to become a Slam contender, her results dipped, and aside from a dramatic (and I do mean dramatic) run to the Cincinnati final in 2011, the Serb’s results have been subpar. The gameplan that seemed so clear during her mainstay among the game’s elite had become a mess of poor execution and shaky nerves. Unable to take advantage of even the kindest of draws, Jankovic was getting soundly beaten by big names and journey women alike.

Still, JJ made herself hard to forget. With her ready smile, unfiltered humor, and “glittery” fashion sense, Jankovic remained pseudo-relevant, even if (much to fans’ amusement) she skipped a tournament near her residence in Dubai to play a small clay event in Bogota.

Surely, this is where dreams of Slam trophies go to die.

JJ’s week in Colombia was hardly straightforward. But then, even at her peak, there was rarely a business-like air to her matches. Her strength was in her ability to get the job done week in, week out. If the process took longer, so what? A win is still a win, and at least it was a good story.

Unfortunately for Jankovic, one story has been haunting her during her apparent spring renaissance. She may be playing better, and her confidence may be growing, but the quality of opponents has rarely become more difficult than those she faced to win Bogota. En route to the semifinals of Miami, a Premier Mandatory event, she played two top 16 players before getting drubbed by old Bollettieri Academy rival Maria Sharapova. This week in Charleston, she only drew two players in the top 100 before fading to current No. 1 Serena Williams in the final after winning a competitive opening set.

Enter the aforementioned analysts who assess JJ’s form, and the fans who take umbrage with the notions that Jankovic has returned to her best. The question remains: do we call her wins what they are, or do we place those pesky asterisks on results deemed too dependent on a collapsing field and the Serb’s good fortune?

In Jankovic’s case, there is merit to be found in both arguments. When a former No. 1 enters a tournament like Bogota, she is making no pretense about her desire for match play. Considering where she was (literally and figuratively), quantity was more than point-grabbing.

Quantity was confidence building.

By the time she reached the final in Charleston, her list of recent wins read like a list of players who were beating her only six months ago. A player ranked 114 might sound like someone Jelena Jankovic should beat, but for so long, she simply wasn’t. In that sense, these last few weeks have been a critical process of reacquainting Jankovic with top-flight tennis in that now she’s playing more than one match per tournament.

Where few can doubt that the Serb has recouped her small-match experience, her performances against Sharapova and Williams left something to be desired. Oddly enough, both could be called asterisk-worthy matches, given the poor scheduling that saw Jankovic playing two matches in less than 24 hours in Miami and the verbal dispute with Williams that shook her concentration in Charleston. Her wealth of quantity wins were necessary to reaffirming her self-belief; without that, it would have been impossible for JJ to have played Serena as tough as she did otherwise. The final step is translating the belief she earned from the quantity into the quality victories that would eliminate all asterisks from her resurgence. The good news for JJ is that these quantity wins will only create more opportunities for that quality scalp.

With a little extra “day glitter,” anything is possible.

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