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Posted: Wednesday October 15, 2008 2:40PM; Updated: Friday October 24, 2008 1:23PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

Comparing Jelena and Ana, the best to not win a major and more

Story Highlights

I still say that we ought to reserve judgment until Ivanovic is at full strength

Let's do, however, take this opportunity to give some props to Jankovic

I cast my Best Player Never To Have Won a Slam Title vote for Marcelo Rios

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Evaluating an injured Ana Ivanovic is not the way to judge a player's worthiness of No. 1.
Evaluating an injured Ana Ivanovic is not the way to judge a player's worthiness of No. 1.
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I used to think this notion was controversial and didn't want to submit it for fear of being ridiculed, but I think the time has finally come: Jelena Jankovic is a better No. 1 than Ana Ivanovic. Here's a few reasons why.

Ana was tremendously helped in reaching No. 1 by Justine Henin's retirement and a cupcake draw to her first slam (Ana faced zero slam finalists vs. Dinara Safina, who faced a combined 4 slams, 5 finals, and several match points). When Jelena became the top-ranked player, everyone said she needed to at least reach a slam final to deserve it. She ends up doing it and doesn't embarrass herself in the process. The press (and I used to think justifiably so) keep hounding her about not deserving such a prestigious position, and yet she continues to win day in and day out.

I don't think I even need to remind anyone of Ana's W-L record at the moment. Jankovic, for being accused of not being as mentally tough as her compatriot, seems to have proved otherwise (maybe we should have suspected this when Ana's team had to hide from her the opportunity of reaching No. 1 at the French). And I know people could say Ana's been injured (her's was probably far more serious than the laundry list of Jelena's injuries), but let's compare with the other No. 1s in the past couple of years who've come back from an extended injury.
-- Robert Kelso, Los Angeles

• Several of you have written in these past few weeks making a similar, if less detailed, observation. It's unfortunate that these comparisons have to be made. But, realistically, it's inevitable. You have two colleagues from the same small country, roughly the same age, with contrasting styles and mannerisms and ... well, what do you expect? I don't disagree with Robert's premise, but I still say we ought to reserve judgment until Ivanovic is at full strength. Clearly she is just a shard of the uninhibited ball-striker who won the French Open. There's a mental component to her struggles these past few months, but she is injured as well. So let's hold off here.

Let's do, however, take this opportunity to give some props to Jankovic, who appears to be filling the vacuum at the top of the WTA rankings and acquitting herself like a No. 1 player. On the heels of her run to the U.S. Open final, Hammerin' Jank has won three titles and will finish 2008 with the No. 1 ranking. Plus, she's done it with that polished smile on her face and a sense of candor we haven't seen since Martina Hingis.

What's more, at a time when even the former players are lamenting the one-dimensional ball-bashing on the women's tour, Jankovic plays a whimsical retrieving style that relies on more than brute force. I'm still wary of going overboard praising a top player who's never won a Slam. (See below). And I still worry that Jankovic plays too many events for her own good. But she's been the best player in the business these past few months. And for that, to borrow a phrase, I have to praise you like I should.

Now that Jelena Jankovic has won her fourth title of the year in Moscow (and third in as many weeks), what do you think it would take for her to win the WTA Player of the Year Award? It seems as if she's got the No. 1 spot sewn up for the year on the strength of a late fall surge, but I wonder what it would take for the WTA to give her the nod over Serena (whose four titles overall, including the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon final do seem more noteworthy).
-- Bryan Cameron, Philadelphia

• I may have to revisit this if J-squared turns in a dominating performance at the year-end championships. But I just can't support awarding the equivalent of an MVP award to a player who hasn't won a Grand Slam. Much as we all love the Kremlin Cup and the China Open and the other tour events, the four Slams are the tentpole events. They call 'em majors for a reason. I'm sticking with Serena.

In your latest mailbag, you mention Mark Philippoussis as the best male player to never win a grand slam. Not to take anything away from him, I'd say you'd have to consider Miroslav Mecir for that honor. Such a pleasure to watch -- I've never seen any player make tennis look so effortless and fluent. Two grand slam finals, peak at No. 4 in the world. I know this is arguable, but he ranks up there.
-- Jesper Thomsen, Ringsted, Denmark

• My point was simply that, at some point, you play yourself out of contention for this title. To Jesper's point, as far as the BPNTHWAS (Best Player Never to Have Won a Slam), I cast my vote for Marcelo Rios, the only player to achieve the top ranking and go Slamless.

At the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, the car is not addition to the prize. The winner has to decide if she takes the money ($100,000) or the car (140,000€). So no wonder that Jelena took the car.
-- Krzysztof, Poznan, Poland

• When I was researching my book on women's tennis way back in 2000, I remember a WTA operative telling me that cars were provided in addition to the cash. However, on further review, it sounds as though the policy is now either/or. Function of the economy, perhaps. Take the cash or take the car. (As Jim of St. Pete, Fla., noted, it's not exactly Sophie's Choice.)

Talk about a win-win. As Krzystof notes, even leaving emotion out if it, the player is better off taking a $140k car over $100k in cash. (I know, it's Euros and not dollars, but I'm too lazy to play around with the shift and option keys and find that symbol.) At the same time, the sponsor is providing the car at cost. So they're effectively providing a $140k prize for a cost of...what? Half that? Either way, everyone goes home happy.

I've always heard David Nalbandian is one of the cleanest hitters on the tour. So I sought him out on a backcourt for his first-round match at the U.S. Open and marveled at how well he played. And how cleanly he hit the ball. I'm now a huge fan. Is this a good thing?
-- Steve, Chicago

• Sure. I'd never try and dissuade you from supporting a player whose game appeals to you. Realistically, Nalbandian is a maddeningly erratic player whose results are all over the metaphorical map. He's probably on the downside of his career. He's not known for his sunny disposition or his cork-popping personality. But that's just a surgeon general's warning label. Long as you understand the risks you're undertaking, the libertarian in me says go for it.

Jon, to your point about J.J. vs. Dementieva. In yesterday's semi, Elena served an incredible 100 percent in the first set. By the third, that had dropped to 44 percent. In contrast, J.J. served at 94 percent in the third set. That's very telling about E.D.'s woes. Is it me or is Jelena serve getting much better?
-- Richard Hicks, NYC

• I think the take-away ... wait, before I go further, which phrase has become more cloyingly overused lately: "game changer" or "the take-away?" Anyway, I think the lesson from that match is this: the serve is really the cornerstone of a player's game. Once the initial delivery goes, everything else follows. Conversely, when you're winning easy points on your serve, everything else often falls into place.

Aside: How often do you see two of the world's top players compete in a match that goes 0-6, 6-1, 6-0? Wacky times in women's tennis.

Tennis' 50-yard dash: Today, with no working out to get ready, Michael Chang beats 75 of the top 100 ranked players!
-- Phil Nichols, Jacksonville, Fla

• I will refrain from making a Yevgeny Kafelnikov joke and simply say that I bet -- a gentleman's wager, mind you -- that Chang, now in his mid-30s, would not finish in the top half. Speed is almost a pre-req for success these days. Honestly, how many top 100 players can you name who don't move well?

How much different is the indoor season from the outdoor hard court season? That was always a time when Hingis used to shine. Now it looks like Jankovic has become the indoor leader. BTW, I used to look on the Season Championships as the indoor slam. Now the championships seem just like another outdoor hardcourt tournament.
-- Jerry White, Mineral, Va

• I've never been a big fan of the indoor season. Part of it is the dreary, climate-controlled nature of it all. But I also feel as though the results are of limited value. There are no Slams left on the calendar. The players are all banged up. Some of the year-end slots have already been filled. The whole thing smacks of anti-climax. If you're Federer or Nadal or Venus or Serena, do you really care about your results in October and November? I think it's no coincidence that the Thomas Enqvist types -- today it's Nalbandian -- clean up here. The big boys have pretty much shifted to cruise control.

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