Jankovic gets boost from strong performance in Fed Cup match
Jelena Jankovic became the first No. 1 ranked woman to never win a major
Jankovic defeated Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova in their Fed Cup match Sunday
Christina McHale has gained experience, but there are sizeable holes in her game
There isn't a more beautiful scene in sports than the Monte Carlo tournament, a panorama of orange clay set against the sparkling Mediterranean and handsomely appointed hillsides. And there's nothing more discouraging than the plight of America's Fed Cup team, now floundering among the relegated for the first time.
Then again, these are familiar storylines, especially Rafael Nadal's dismissal of every Monte Carlo opponent in his path. To me, the weekend's most interesting story was the Serbia-Slovakia Fed Cup tie and the revival of Jelena Jankovic's spirit.
Jankovic is an especially important figure in the women's game. The WTA fancies itself as a haven for sleek, beautiful women playing tennis at the highest level, and Jankovic, along with Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Kirilenko and Serena Williams (among others), invariably finds herself at the center of those glamorous photo/video shoots.
That's all very nice for Jankovic, but more relevant is her on-court reputation, which peaked with a No. 1 ranking in August 2008. That came in the wake of several deep runs at Grand Slam events, and although she reached the final of the '08 U.S. Open, she wound up as the first woman to finish a year at No. 1 without ever having won a major.
With the heart of the clay-court season approaching, we find her still lacking a major title. That's a vital missing piece and, as current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki can attest, it leads to a lot of annoying questions in news conferences. Jankovic has been in search of top form since that ranking vanished, featuring more letdowns than highlights.
She seemed to reach a low point around this time last year, when she admitted, "I feel like I'm losing my concentration and can't focus for a long period of time. You can't hide when you're doing something wrong and pretend that it's right. A couple of years ago, I never got tired. I could run around the court and travel all over the place, and now I'm really feeling it. It's not that I'm actually sick. I just feel slow and heavy."
There were off-and-on reports that Jankovic and Ivanovic were at odds within Serbia's Fed Cup structure, but if any type of simmering feud existed, it clearly disappeared during their high-spirited match (won by Ivanovic) at this year's Indian Wells. But Jankovic still needed to resurrect her status back home.
On the eve of the Fed Cup tie against Slovakia, Serbian captain Dejan Vranes shocked many observers by picking 19-year-old Bojana Jovanovski, ranked 58th in the world, ahead of Jankovic in singles. It wasn't a question of talent, certainly not to anyone who has witnessed Jovanovski's unusually forceful shots from the baseline. But experience counts in these matters. Credit Jankovic for putting aside her discontent and telling the press, "The most important thing is that we support each other."
Jovanovski looked a bit overwhelmed by the occasion, losing the opening singles to Dominika Cibulkova (6-1 in the third), and when Ivanovic came down with an abdominal injury (a long-standing issue) and had to retire against Cibulkova on Sunday, Serbia was down 2-1 and at the point of desperation.
That's when Jankovic, asked to keep her country afloat, took over. After being crushed in the first set by Daniela Hantuchova, she rallied for a thrilling 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 win. Then she came right back for the doubles, with partner Aleksandra Krunic, and they were trailing 2-6, 1-5 to a Slovakian pair (Hantuchova and Magdalena Rybarikova) that seemed destined for glory before a home crowd in Bratislava. But the Serbs came back -- 7-5 and 9-7 in the last two sets -- to earn their country promotion to the 2012 World Group.
Thrilled beyond words, Jankovic celebrated with her teammates and said later, "We kept fighting and never gave up. Somehow, we managed to end up as winners."
Given Jankovic's up-and-down ways, it's hard to say where she goes from here. Suffice it say she no longer feels slow, or heavy, but rather quite heroic.
U.S. Fed Cup team bottoms out: You have to feel sorry for the highly capable Mary Joe Fernandez, captain of the U.S. team, for she has no cards in her deck. Melanie Oudin is hopelessly outclassed at the elite level, and always will be, and it's hardly inspiring when your top player admits that the pressure of trying to win in Stuttgart "put extra weight on my shoulder." Yes, Oudin is young, but I don't think you would have heard that from a teenage Tracy Austin or Chris Evert, just to name two, in such a high-stakes affair.
It was good to see 18-year-old Christina McHale get some high-profile experience against Andrea Petkovic and the rest of the Germans, but like all of the allegedly up-and-coming American women, there are glaring weaknesses in her game. It hardly helped to see Venus Williams in the stands, because she was only in Germany to "make herself available" for the matches and thus qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Williams had long been ruled out due to injury, and the Fed Cup has always meant just one thing to Venus and Serena: a ticket to the Summer Games.
So as it turns out, we won't be seeing a U.S. team as the Fed Cup's World Group marches on. Good. This second-rate outfit has become totally unwatchable. Let the Williams sisters play the Olympics, where they belong, but don't expect any significant Fed Cup breakthroughs until some future generation arrives.
Notes and observations: Nice to see a bit of upswing from Andy Murray after his desultory post-Australian performances. Up against a limping Gilles Simon, who had turned an ankle, Murray ruthlessly put away the Monte Carlo match with an array of drop shots placed so perfectly, even a totally fit opponent would have struggled for answers. The crowd booed Murray for taking advantage of Simon, but what's he supposed to do -- groove his groundstrokes right down the middle? Any kind of edge in a Murray match is welcome these days. Then Murray played a fabulous second set against Nadal in the semifinals before the inevitable Rafa surge.
Murray needed a cortisone shot in his elbow in order to take the court on Saturday, and here's how he explained the injury: "You sometimes get a bit of bone that has sort of fallen off. It sounds worse than it is, but it's basically floating around in the joint. So every time I bend, I get a lot of, like, clicking." Sounds downright troublesome.
Nadal, still not expertly conversant in English, had an interesting way of assessing his future: "I am going to stop playing tennis when I lose my illusions."
No off-week for Nadal. He's charging straight to Barcelona, obviously feeling his knees are up to any assignment these days.
France really felt the absence of Marion Bartoli in its disappointing 4-1 Fed Cup loss to Spain. Bartoli has clashed with team captain Nicolas Escude and the French federation over her independent coaching, and according to Escude, "Her way of working with her father, their structure, the way they train and the fact that they want to be inseparable from each other, all of this makes her integration into the team impossible. They know as well as I do that it's totally incompatible." Escude didn't have any problem selecting Aravene Rezai, whose abusive father has drawn bans from the WTA tour, but Rezai's future seems a bit more secure in light of her recent decision to hire Alexia Dechaume for coaching leading up to the French Open.
I really don't know what I'd do without those Serena tweets, courtesy of ESPN. They're just so deep and reflective. Her latest gem: "I'm not a morning person."