ISTANBUL — Of the eight women who qualified for the WTA Championships, no one seemed more pleased to be in Istanbul than Jelena Jankovic. After becoming the 18th player to hold the No. 1 ranking in 2008 and staying among the top 10, the 28-year-old Serb hit a slump falling out of the top 10 in 2011 and then struggling to remain in the top 30 in 2012.
Her slump appeared to continue at the start of 2013, However, Jankovic appointed her brother Marco as her full-time coach, which helped to turn her season around. She returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2011 and is back to compete at her fifth WTA Championships.
“He told me from the beginning that his goal is to bring me back to top 10 and to bring me back to the top,” Jankovic said during her pre-tournament press conference. “So with the hard work, I got new motivation, and [it] gives me great satisfaction that I was able to make it here and that all that hard work has paid off.”
For the first time since 2009, Jankovic has won more than 40 matches in a season, including a title in Bogota earlier this year. She reached the finals of two Premier-level events — the Family Circle Cup and China Open — but both times lost to Serena Williams.
During her reign of consistency at the top of the game, Jankovic was famous for her hatred of practice. From 2004 to 2012 she played in excess of 20 tournaments a year, playing 28 or more four times, because she would rather compete than hone her game during training blocks. Under her brother, that’s changed.
“I have made a lot of mistakes, you know, as far as what has not worked, and I have learned what works for me,” she said. “So now as a 28‑year‑old I can use that to my advantage. I have a lot more knowledge, a lot more experience. I think I can do and show a lot more in my tennis career. So I’m ready to work hard and to show the world some great tennis performances.”
“I love the competition. I love the satisfaction of winning. I love playing against the best tennis players in the world, and that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy spending time on the court, and as well I enjoy spending time on the practice court which was at times not the case. I think without spending time in the practice court or in the gym, you’re not going to be able to perform at high levels. So now I’m putting in a lot of hard work, and that hard work is paying off.”
Jankovic’s rise to No. 1 in 2008 was a credit to her fitness and consistency, and — much like other number ones at the time, such as fellow Serbian Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina — she benefitted from the vacuum left in the women’s game by the sudden retirement of Justine Henin and injuries to Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. A natural counter-puncher, Jankovic began to slip in 2009 and struggled to adjust to the more physical style of play.
“Of course I know how hard it is to make it to the top 10, to make it to No. 1,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but then I also believe that it’s tougher to stay there. I think every year the game is getting stronger and stronger and more powerful, faster, and I think you have to follow. You have to continue to strive to get better, to improve, to develop your game, to add new things to your game if you’re going to be a player, if you’re going to continue to stay and lead the tennis game, to be one of the top players.
Thankfully for Jankovic she feels as fit as ever. Now up to No. 8, she believes her best tennis is still ahead of her. Her goal now is to break back into the top five next season and she draws inspiration from what she’s seen Serena Williams accomplish this year.
“There was times in the past where I kind of felt like everything is aching and hurting and I feel like I’m getting older. I cannot be up there and all this. I had some doubts. But now at this stage I feel that I can achieve a lot, and I have a lot of belief in myself. I know I can bring a lot more to the table.
“There is no reason for me not to perform at such a high level. So I do not feel old. It shows, like people like Serena, at 32, she’s playing her best tennis and having the best year of her career, and I think that inspires all of us.”