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Why Jelena Jankovic is finally ready to Slam the injuries and self-doubt

At 23 and an eight-year professional of the WTA tour, remarkably Jelena Jankovic could be said to be a veteran of the year-round grinding circus that is women’s professional tennis.

It seems, too, that finally she has become a lady in a hurry to fulfil the massive potential built on supreme athleticism and a rapier-like backhand. It was a potential that was first announced to the world in May 2001, when she ascended to the lonely peak of No.1 position, in the fiercely competitive environment of international junior tennis.

Transferring this stellar success to the senior game, however, is never a fait accompli, and the road to the senior summit is littered with names of the game's next ‘sure thing’ whose progress stalled along the way.

Examples of unfulfilled potential include the anonymous senior career of the supremely gifted Maria-Emilia Salerni, who reached junior world No.1 in both singles and doubles the year before Jankovic, but who currently languishes at number 242 in the senior rankings. Kirsten Flipkens is another whose name would hardly be recognised on a court, let alone in the street.

She was the world junior No.1 in 2004 - and was supposed to ride the ephemeral Belgian conveyor belt of talent to the summit of the senior game, joining her compatriots, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, in creating the tennis dynasty that ‘never was.’

Somehow it seemed different with Jankovic, the girl from Belgrade with an attitude forged from the steel of white hot-battles which raged around her Serbian homeland, during her formative years.

The image of Jankovic honing her skills in a disused swimming pool whilst bombers droned overhead, has not been rendered any less true for it becoming one of the laziest clichés ever trotted out by journalists. Consistently overlooked, however, is the heart and mind of a champion that always existed within the 5ft 9in perfect athletic frame.

Nick Bollettieri, with whom Jankovic subsequently trained in Bradenton, Florida, is given to the occasional bout of over-enthusiasm, but nobody can doubt his track record in producing champions. In 2001 when speaking about the Serb nicknamed J.J, the enthusiastic hyperbole that often characterises his many pronouncements was pointedly replaced by a solemn statement of fact. “She is a girl who will dominate tennis”, he simply said.

Bollettieri understood that this level of potential, coupled with unblinking determination, would always be enough, even in these formative years. Perhaps he intended to spur her on back then, when he suggested that Jankovic was slightly in awe of Maria Sharapova at his academy, and too happy to stay in the shadows, protected by her charismatic mother Snezana. 

The determination Bollettieri understood was not always apparent to those who knew her less well, however. The early days of her professional career were steady rather than spectacular.

Those present alongside me on Court 13 at Wimbledon on June 25, 2005, will recall a marathon match on a day when there was just too much heat, and it was just too hard for her to believe she could win. Her opponent that day commented after the match: "Let's put it this way. She walks on the court. I don't think she really cares about the way she plays.

"She cares more about how she looks. That was kind of strange. She was touching her hair, whatever, her skirt. I was just thinking, 'If you don't want to play tennis, why are we even trying here so hard?'"

The image many will be left with of that day was of an emotional Snezana, imploring her steadily-wilting daughter to eat chocolate at the changeovers for energy. It was not to be enough, however, as without real belief, the third set slipped away 10-8.

This seemed to mark a turning point for Jankovic. Never again would she give less than 100%, even often competing whilst clearly injured, as in the 2008 Hopman Cup where, rather than let her partner Novak Djokovic down by defaulting, she hobbled gamely though the mixed doubles, aggravating her injury further by sprinting and lunging for a series of near-impossible shots. 

Jankovic knew she was risking all, just a week ahead of the Australian Open which was a much, much greater prize, and indeed this culminated in her playing that event whilst wading through a sea of further injuries.

It seems then, that this is a new Jankovic, as typified on her personal website where she states her personal philosophy as: “I never surrender in my life, whether on or off the court”

If there had been any lingering embers of self-doubt, they have finally been extinguished with the validation of becoming the world's No.1 player in 2008. The New Year, however, holds the potential of even richer promise for the Serbian.

Already she has signed what is being described as a landmark clothing sponsorship deal with Chinese company ANTA. The company were reluctant to discuss the financial aspects of the deal but proudly stated it is one of the largest in the history of the sport; no small boast when set against the reported figures that the Williams sisters have earned through this lucrative channel.

Now there is just one jewel missing in the crown of Jankovic’s sparkling career. Clijsters before her, had to listen to the carping of those who suggested that to be considered a true No.1, a player had to have won at least one Grand Slam event. Clijsters eventually got the monkey off her back, and few doubt that Jankovic can eventually do the same, and add a singles slam to her 2007 Wimbledon mixed-doubles crown.

This week Jankovic is in Melbourne playing the Australian Open, and many believe that Bollettieri’s 2001 prediction will come true over the next fortnight. “She is a girl who will dominate tennis”.

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