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Jelena Jankovic set to smile again

Even though Jelena Jankovic lost her semi-final to No 1-in-waiting Caroline Wozniacki, Jankovic's fighting trip to the semi-finals birthed fresh promise.

Despite losing in Dubai tournament, Serb tennis player is making steady progress in bid to win a first grand slam title

The vision of Jelena Jankovic winning match point in a grand slam singles final would be one of such uncommon joy that anybody rooting against it must be a rival, a rival's parent, a rival's fanatic or some generally wretched prude.

Well, with the non-grand slam tournaments forever groping for significance, maybe the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships happened upon some. Maybe it has reinstated that vision as viable.

Heaven knows the thing had grown faded as the tennis year began, with Jankovic's spate of injuries distancing her from relevance and the vision retreating past unlikelihood, past pointlessness and toward obsolescence.

Now the subplots of the season might well include the serial smiler and former world No 1 Jankovic at 26, after one US Open final berth in 2008 and five other grand slam semi-final berths sprinkled from 2006 to early 2010, still chasing an elusive big crown to which all the waiting would lend greater depth, the same way it did for Roger Federer when he finally won the French Open in 2009.

Or, as Jankovic summarised in Dubai: "It shows that I'm still up there."

Even though the world No 8 player lost her semi-final to No 1-in-waiting Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3, even though Jankovic could not grab any of four long-rally set points while serving at 5-3 in the first, and even though she could not muster enough energy for the rigours Wozniacki asks by getting back almost every ball in creation, Jankovic's fighting trip to the semi-finals birthed fresh promise.

If she plays like this or a notch above, catches a few points here and there, gets the friendly draw breaks mandatory for anyone not named Serena, it doesn't require lunacy to picture the ultimate.

"She needs matches now," said her omnipresent mother, Snezana, and Jelena got some of them here, fighting through two players who beat her in 2010 grand slams, Kaia Kanepi and Sam Stosur, recovering from third-set deficits of 5-3 (Kanepi) and 4-1 (Stosur) before burrowing into another high-brow scrap with Wozniacki.

To watch her in such a scrap, it helped to know she had missed such scrapping. Jankovic, remember, had long renown for long matches and long schedules, and one time after a preposterous 11-deuce final game at the 2008 US Open her mother stopped her on the way off the court and, in typical family fashion and atypical tennis fashion, kidded: "Do you like your mom?"

"Of course," Jelena said.

"Why do you do that to me, you don't finish the match! You wanted me to stay in the sun and die slowly!"

Such levity, so rare on the tennis landscape, helps make the ultimate vision palatable and helps make the scene Jankovic painted of late 2010 more melancholy. "Injuries get to you," she said after outlasting Stosur, "and you really feel like, you know, all this bad luck, I cannot really play tennis. You watch the other girls play, and you're just basically watching them on TV. And I used to be there. I used to be the one playing deep in the tournaments and playing for the trophies. I've been No 1 in the world, and I've been in the top 10 for many years ... I was really missing those kinds of matches, really fighting and having fun out there."

Suddenly, after Wimbledon, this paragon of stamina managed to get only two matches in Slovenia, only one at San Diego, only two at Cincinnati, only one at Montreal, three at the US Open, two at Tokyo, two at Beijing, an especially brutal one against the 268th-ranked player in Moscow and three losses in Doha.

It showed in her year-long activity, which featured 97 and 84 matches in lush years such as 2007 and 2008 but only 61 in 2010.

"When the times were tough, it was difficult to get on the practice court," she said. "After you lose a match and you've been working hard, you go and play a tournament, you lose again. You go and practise hard again, you lose again. How tough, you know, that can be. How long can you keep doing that until you somehow get out of it?"

Maybe you can do that until February 2011 and then suddenly get out of it. Slogging through Stosur in a third-set tiebreaker, even in going ahead early on Wozniacki, Jankovic again resembled Jankovic and managed to reactivate the imagination.

So of that potential grand slam daydream, she said such things as, "You know, I think that can just come," and, "This tournament gives me a lot of confidence". So just think, if somebody could smile that much and that appealingly just winning a Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 2007, just imagine how it might look once she ...

You know.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

Updated: February 20, 2011 04:00 AM

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