Having previously cited lessons we recreational players can learn from men’s number one Rafael Nadal, let’s now have a look at the best women’s player of 2008, Jelena Jankovic.
In the big picture, I’m quite puzzled by her ascent to number one. In large part, that Jankovic could reach the top without having won a Grand Slam singles title speaks more to her overall consistency and extensive play — and the wavering physical and mental engagement of her peers — than a particularly stellar result.
But then again, rankings are inherently the sporting equivalent of grading by a curve, so it’s hardly Jankovic’s fault that she’s posted the best results this year while such recent Grand Slam champs as Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, and Ana Ivanovic have respectively retired and floundered. So here’s what we mortals can derive from the sturdy Serb’s ascent:
1 — Play
It’s that simple. Jankovic plays tons of tennis. Over the last year, she’s played 22 tournaments. Only one other player in the top eight has even played 20. Though I wonder how this impacts her ability to peak for the big occasions, what’s great about Jankovic is that she consistently puts herself on the line. Juniors in particular should notice this: She is not ducking anyone, but instead throwing herself into the cauldron of competition. And as we all know, there’s no better way to improve competitive skills than to enter events and learn how to overcome nerves, solve various problems, deal with diverse opponents, face disparate situations, grapple with elements such as the sun and the wind and so on. Jankovic is a warrior par excellence.
2 — Get Fit in Ways that Help Your Game
Jankovic couldn’t play so much if her body constantly betrayed her. Working with famed trainer, Pat Etcheberry, she’s put in much time to improve her agility and ability to react faster — and recover quicker during the rallies. That’s essential for her brand of counterpunching tennis. The hours she’s spent off the court have rapidly translated into durability on it — most notably in Jankovic’s ability to consistently win long matches and bounce into duty the next day.
3 — Play To Your Strengths
At this point, Jankovic is not the hardest hitter on the tour in the manner of a Lindsay Davenport or Serena Williams. Nor is she an eclectic tactician ala Martina Hingis or Justine Henin. Her strength comes in her ability to repeatedly make opponents play yet one more ball. Added to that is Jankovic’s confidence in her backhand, most prominently when she takes the ball early and drills it down the line.
Yes, she is working to improve her serve, seeking to add more to her forehand and, hopefully, learning to become a more forthright attacking player on short balls. But for all the attention any of us wish to put into improving our weaknesses, it’s even more essential to beef up the strengths — and look for ways to deploy them in a match.
Too often I see players who fall prey to what I call “The Complete Player Syndrome” — a desire to master every shot at the expense of a focused, self-aware recognition of one’s true skills, strengths, and, yes, limitations. For Jankovic, of course, the stakes are higher. If she wants to win Slams she’ll likely need to beef up her serve, particularly her second serve. But it’s not likely she’ll ever lead the tour in aces. But her backhand is a beautiful shot, and to see how she looks for ways to deploy that strength is a lesson any player can take away from her effective game.
I’ll be curious to see what comes of Jankovic in 2009. Each of the Williams sisters — Serena most of all — demonstrated their share of hunger in 2008. Dinara Safina made a big rise. Sharapova intends to return. Ivanovic should surely have learned more about what it takes to be number one. For now, though, give the credit to Jankovic.
Joel Drucker is a senior writer for Tennis One. Read more of his work at www.TennisOne.com.
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