defensive prowess

JELLY ROLLS – JANKOVIC RETURNS TO TOP FORM AT INDIAN WELLS

By Chris Oddo

It was a wild week in the California Desert – conditions were so balmy that I felt like imitating that BNP Paribas commercial where the fans grab the player’s racquets and make a mockery of the match by running onto the court and taking wild amateurish swings at the ball.

Fortunately I didn’t act on any of these feelings – the tennis being played on the courts was so spectacular that I wouldn’t have dared.

Speaking of spectacular, nobody on the women’s side was more spectacular than the 25-year-old Serbian Sensation known as “JJ” to her fans.  I prefer Jelly, but that’s another story for another day.  Whatever you call her, the Serb put together her strongest effort of the young season, staging a Houdini of a comeback against Sara Errani in the 3rd round, then riding the momentum to four straight set victories, and her 12th career title on Sunday.

The win comes on the heels of a parting of ways with former coach, Ricardo Sanchez, and the formation of a temporary no-strings-attached agreement with Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy Director of Tennis, Chip Brooks.

Jankovic, who hasn’t been beyond the 4th round of a Slam since her 2008 U.S. Open final appearance, played at such a high level in this tournament that it’s hard not to consider the possibility of another run up the tennis ladder and into the top-5 again.  The former No. 1 reached the semifinals or better in three of four majors in ’08, but success has not come so easily since.

Part of her success, and perhaps part of what has been missing since she has slipped, has been her ability to aggressively dictate play to her opponents.  Perhaps Jankovic has tended to lean on her defensive prowess too much over the years – but not here at Indian Wells.  She is content no more.  Jankovic seemed to forget to put the pedal to the metal at times in ’09 when the situation called for it.  She didn’t take advantage of her ability to hit very heavy balls and put very significant pressure on her adversaries.  Brooks took notice of this and started coaching her to embrace her aggressive nature.

It’s some of the strategical terrain that Chip Brooks, Jelena’s coach at the moment, mentioned to me in our conversation today, and it was the stuff that was obviously crucial to her success this week.  When Jankovic started to get some wind in her sails with a very decisive win against Israeli Shahar Peer in the 4th round, Brooks said he knew they had a shot.  As a witness to that match, I must admit, it was pretty impressive.  Routinely stepping inside the baseline and scorching winners from both wings against Peer, Jelly was getting on a roll that she was destined to never get off.

Could this be the real deal, or were we simply remembering with fondness a Jankovic that we would more than likely never see again?   Were we seeing ghosts in the machine?

Apparently not.

Suddenly, with a juggernaut of a run to a very prestigious title, Jankovic has worked her way into that category of players that just might do some damage come springtime.

Could she be coming of age for a second time?

It was hard not to notice the ease with which she closed out matches against the likes of Sam Stosur (new to the top-10 this week) and Caroline Wozniacki (now No. 2 in the world).  Not only did she consistently make the first strike against her opponents, taking them out of crucial points, but Jankovic displayed some of the best serving she’s ever produced.  Surrendering three breaks in the final three matches pretty much tells the story.  And what was perhaps even more impressive is that she didn’t face a break point throughout the very tense 2nd set that decided the final against Wozniacki.

“I just have to stay focused and do what I do best,” Jankovic told the press as she spoke to them after her semifinal victory over stosur.  It was a telling statement, and it is indeed good news that Jankovic appears to finally remember what she does best.  Chip Brooks deserves some credit for the turnaround, but, as he told me himself “this isn’t about me, she’s the one out there hitting the ball.”

Indeed she is.