If the just-concluded Indian Wells tournament told us anything, it is that no matter how hard the ATP and WTA may try to trumpet the prestige and significance of the elite non-Slam events, there will always be a great disparity between the Slams on one hand and all other tourneys on the other. You could argue that the abysmal showing of most of the seeded players in the tournament can be put down to some inspired play from the lower-ranked players. But for Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva, Elena Dementieva, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko to all go out before the semifinal stage, wouldn’t there have to be a lot more sinister forces at work than mere ‘inspired play’ from their opponents? It might seem sacrilegious to even suggest that the top players don’t care about a tournament as big as the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, but it is pertinent to question why players like Djokovic were found, mid-tournament (after losing a 4th round match), to be grumbling about the over-loaded tennis calendar even though we’re barely three months into the year. The fact that there was hardly any gnashing of teeth on the internet message boards after Federer came up short yet again in his bid to equal Andre Agassi’s record of 17 Masters’ titles is more than just telling; it is irrevocable proof that a Slam is a Slam is a Slam. But is it really such a bad thing that no regular ATP or WTA tournament on the annual schedule can come close to the status of a Major? I for one am not complaining; it’s just as well that the unique charms of the Grand Slams have their own special place in the sport.
So what do we make of the two champions this year? To say that no one must have expected Ivan Ljubicic to be lifting the trophy on Sunday would not quite be the understatement of the year, but it would come close. The man is 31 years old (in a nice little turn of events, he celebrated his 31st birthday a day after he upset Djokovic in the 4th round), had never won a Masters’ level tournament in his career before last week and although he was once ranked as high as 3rd in the world, his career accomplishments would hardly qualify him to be called anything more than a glorified journeyman. How much does a player’s standing in the game matter once he steps on the court? The manner in which players have been known to choke and suffocate themselves to losses against, say, a Federer or a Serena Williams would certainly suggest that stature does count for a lot in tennis, but every once in a while we get to see a sequence of events that seems to render career accomplishments, rankings, stature and even talent level inconsequential.
Admittedly, Djokovic and Nadal were both coming off troubled times prior to the tournament. Djokovic has been annoyingly busy over the past month, winning the title in Dubai after a string of long three-setters and then helping his country defeat the US in Serbia’s Davis Cup tie with a couple of hard-fought wins. Nadal, on the other hand, was making a comeback after yet another injury, and though he coasted to the semifinals without too much trouble, he wasn’t tested by any top-level player in the process. But it would be downright unfair to take anything away from Ljubicic’s wins over the 2nd- and 3rd-ranked players in the world; he beat them fair and square in his run to the title, and he did it by playing the good, old-fashioned style of riding your serve and waiting for your opponent to wither away. The ploy also worked like a charm in the final against Andy Roddick – one player who is almost never forced to watch aces and service winners fly past him without being able to mount a matching reply. Has there ever been a Croatian player who didn’t have a mammoth serve? It almost feels like the only two things young players in Croatia are taught are to practice hitting the corners with their serve and to eat their vegetables. Nothing else can explain how ALL of them grow to such towering heights and come to possess such potent serves.
So the tournament which started on a shaky note for the men ended with a mildly satisfying conclusion; I don’t think anyone would want to begrudge Ljubicic such a fine win at this stage of his career. Over at the women’s side, Jelena Jankovic has probably been praying for a ‘fine win’ since about a year and a half. Jankovic’s career has had more ups and downs than I care to remember; that, coupled with her penchant for drama and theatrics, truly make for a story that is irresistibly hard to ignore. The woman stole the year-end No.1 ranking from Serena Williams by stringing together an impressive series of titles towards the end of 2008, but since that moment of glory she has been in danger of being relegated to second-tier status, a downslide that is comparable to, but definitely not on the same level as her compatriot Ana Ivanovic’s alarming descent down the rankings. Jankovic was once considered the iron woman of the WTA; she played almost non-stop, and won a fair bit too, and was rewarded with the top ranking and a degree of respect that can only come with putting together a quality run of play. But there was always that one crucial element missing in her game – firepower. This fact was brought into sharp focus when she made her legendary comment, “During the match I felt, ‘white girls can’t play’; I can never hope to match the power of Serena Williams” after her loss to Williams in the Miami final in 2008. So off she went to Nick Bollettieri’s academy, determined to bulk up and get some power of her own by, presumably, doing some heavy lifting in the gym.
Is there a saying that in tennis, you give yourself the best chance to win if you play to your strengths? If there isn’t, there darned well should be. Jankovic emerged at the beginning of 2009 looking like a different player; all of a sudden she was armed with biceps and an array of muscles. But the new ammunition came at a price; she was no longer the speedy baseliner that could lure the most powerful shot-makers into frustrated errors. She looked sluggish and slow, and promptly lost a bunch of matches to players that a top-ranked player should never lose to, and it was only a matter of time before she lost her No.1 crown too. The ‘Serbian Slide’ catchphrase caught on like wild fire among tennis followers, and soon the young Caroline Wozniacki took Jankovic’s place as the WTA’s ‘iron woman’ – the consistent counterpuncher who could play endlessly. Thankfully though, better sense prevailed in the Jankovic camp, and she shed all that excess weight in order to return back to her lightweight, nimble self that may not have had the firepower to outhit the likes of the Williams sisters, but at least could get by the Dementievas and Kuznetsovas of the world.
Jankovic’s confidence took considerably more time to come back to her than losing those added pounds. She struggled through the early part of the year, but finally hit some form this tournament after scraping past Sara Errani in the 3rd round. She outfoxed big hitters Alisa Kleybanova and Samantha Stosur in the quarters and semis respectively, and when it came to facing Wozniacki, the player who in many ways is like a new and improved version of Jankovic herself, she brought out her full arsenal of intelligently varied strokes, sharp angles and lightning-quick speed around the court. The famed down-the-line backhand made a much-awaited reappearance, the serve had more pop than usual, the error count was kept to an impressive low, and the frustrated Wozniacki was goaded into throwing the match away through a flurry of errors. The Glitter Queen was back, and so was her disarmingly pleasant smile.
A single tournament may not be enough evidence to suggest a major turnaround in Jankovic’s fortunes or a return to the top echelon of the game. But with Dinara Safina and Serena Williams out with injury, the Belgian girls Henin and Clijsters still feeling their way through the tour, Victoria Azarenka floundering with her newfound celebrity status, Venus Williams looking disinterested in all tournaments held outside London, Elena Dementieva still being bogged down with the fear of failure and Svetlana Kuznetsova up to her usual inconsistent antics, the time may be right for Jankovic to announce her intention to challenge for the top spot. Of course, knowing how the WTA works these days, Jankovic will probably go on and lose in the first round of her next tournament. But that will only add another intriguing chapter to Jankovic’s storied career.