resurgence

Quantity or Quality? The JJ Paradox

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.

Andy Murray’s Mum Wins Him Prizes – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

No Coach, No Problem – It’s been mere weeks since the news broke that Murray was sacking Maclagan as his coach. The decision didn’t come as a surprise given the relative slump that he’s endured throughout the bulk of 2010. But what did come as a bit of a surprise is the recent resurgence in his game that has come right on the heels of going solo with just a few notes from mum (who does know a thing or two about the game). His most recent results have included a finals appearance in Los Angeles, and more importantly, successfully defending his crown at the Rogers Cup just last week. The young Scot produced some of the best play to come off his racquet in recent memory, taking that Masters 1000 title with wins over the red-hot Nalbandian, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. It will be interesting to see how he fairs in Cincy, but there’s little doubt that in spite of the fact he’s without a coach, he’s perhaps never looked more ready to end the major title drought for Great Britain.

Swan Song? – Earlier this week, James Blake announced that following the conclusion of the US Open, he would be taking a break from the sport to assess where he is in his career. No one could really find this piece of news shocking based on how his 2010 season has unfolded, which includes a recent thumping by Denis Istomin in the first round of Cincinnati this week. Blake’s ultimate goal is to take off enough time to hopefully recuperate and be able to log in more practice hours in the future, but he has admitted that his patience is being tried, and his career may be over sooner than anticipated. Blake is a nice guy who deserves to go out on his own terms and on a high note, but if you’re in a position to attend the final Slam of the year, you might go see Blake while you still can. This could very well be his last appearance in the Big Apple.

Additions to the WTA DL – After reaching the finals of Cincinnati, Russian Maria Sharapova was forced to pull out of the event in Montreal with a foot injury. The injury was acquired in her finals loss to Kim Clijsters (though hats off to Kim for fending off match points to emerge with the title). No word yet on how this will impact her chances at the US Open. The same goes for Serb Ana Ivanovic, who is suffering from some strained ligaments around the ankle. It’s an unfortunate injury given that Ivanovic was finally starting to make a bit of headway as far as rebuilding her rankings and confidence, but it’s better than the fracture she initially thought she was had. She is still holding out hope of making an appearance this coming week, and hopefully both of these young starlets will be able to wow fans with their presence in New York in just under two weeks time.

Additions to the ATP DL – With just under two weeks to go until the final major of the year, John Isner and Denis Istomin find themselves in a fitness race to be ready to go in the Big Apple. Both men sustained foot injuries in their matches on Wednesday at the Cincy Masters 1000 event. The severity of the injuries is unknown, but Isner wasn’t taking any chances, pulling out of the doubles as well. Isner has put together a nice season and has a real opportunity to raise his ranking even more with a good showing at the Open. Istomin, for his part, is an up-and-comer to watch and might well have been ready for a breakout performance at the last major of the year. Fingers crossed that both men make a full recovery and end the Grand Slam season with a bang.

Out of the Running – Justine Henin is out for the season as a result of the injury she sustained when she fell at this year’s Wimbledon Championships. The Belgian stated that while things are progressing, she won’t even be able to start practicing again until October. This has to be a disappointment, especially when considering the way her season began, but she’s certainly struggled since reaching the finals of the Australian Open. Perhaps this break will give Henin a chance to regroup and wage a more successful, and consistent, campaign in 2011.