Tennis Lessons to be Learned from Jelena Jankovic
by TennisOne | November 6th, 2008, 10:37 pm

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

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5 Comments for Tennis Lessons to be Learned from Jelena Jankovic


Nice to see this article and some respectful recognition of Jelena Jankovic, but actually it takes some effort to get past the first sentence. First, it has to be framed as relative to the men’s game. Sigh! Secondly, JJ is not “the best player of 2008”. That is unnecessarily controversial and not an official award I ever heard of. Obviously, opinions will vary on that, and it baits an unproductive argument. JJ is simply the point leader for the year, the basis upon which WTA declares rankings and establishes seeding. Fortunately, no one has won more than one slam, so it’s not like her recognition is a glaring anomaly. We knew this was coming with the retirement of the dominant Justine Henin and the injury break of Maria Sharipova. There are only journeywomen and continually dangerous Williams sisters left, so we become fans of the best game they can manage.

hannah Says:

I’d say JJ was one of the best. It doesn’t matter at all that she’s never won a slam, well, okay, it does a bit but she’s very consistant and I’m waiting to see what happens with AO 09, and whats gonna happen with sharapova in AO 09.

jane Says:

Jelena is fun to watch imo for a couple of reasons – she’s got guts and will fight to the finish, as Drucker’s “warrior” point acknowledges. Sometimes her defense is downright jaw-dropping. Personally I think she has a fair amount of variety, maybe not an “all court” game, but she’s decent at the net, she can hit a lob, a wicked backhand and a decent forehand. She’s quick too. Some of the women players just whack the ball from the baseline, but I think JJ *could* change that if she continues to develop her style.

But she’s also a little frustrating to watch – the serve needs work. It doesn’t have to be a weapon but if she could learn to make it consistent and as Drucker says to make the second serve into something beyond a sitting duck, then she wouldn’t have to expend so much energy during her own service games and could concentrate on breaking her opponents, something she already does well. I think, too, she can be a little melodramatic on the court – sometimes I like that, and find it funny. But occasionally I think it takes away from her focus on just getting it done and winning.

She’s gotten closer this year to winning a slam. I think one is in the cards for her – but which one? Really she can play pretty well on all surfaces; although she’s not done great at Wimbledon in singles yet, she HAS won a Grand Slam in mixed doubles, lest we forget. So I think she could get it done on grass someday too.

I think she’s got a ton of potential so I hope she continues to work and improve.

andrea Says:

i agree on her down the line backhand. when she employs that the point is usually over.

she is also a frustrating opponent – more than anyone on the women’s tour, she does get that one ball back with some ridiculous get.

her first serve has improved, power wise, in the past year but it’s still not lethal.

but she covered her hair in sparkles for the US Open final so in my books, she’s cool.

Giner Says:

She will remain top 5 throughout all of 2009. Probably not #1, but won’t stay far from that spot.

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