Can Serbia’s women return to their best in 2013?

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Five years ago, Serbians Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic were touted as “the next big thing” in tennis.

While Novak Djokovic has enjoyed continued success today, the dominance of the Serbian women have diminished in recent times.

The 2008 Australian Open showcased the best talent from the country. All three were coming off a breakthrough year, which saw Ana Ivanovic reach her first Grand Slam final, Jelena Jankovic reach at least the fourth round of all the Slams and finish in the top four at the end of the season.

Jelena Jankovic, seeded third, was slow to get going, having to save three match points in the first round against Tamira Paszek before going on to make the semi-finals, losing to eventual champion Maria Sharapova after knocking out defending champion Serena Williams en route. She also defeated our very own Casey Dellacqua in the fourth round.

Ana Ivanovic, seeded fourth, was coming off a phenomenal 2007 season where she won 50 matches before her 20th birthday, won three titles, reached the final of the French Open and the semi-finals at Wimbledon and cracked the top 10. She is well-liked around the world.

Her run to the Australian Open final included victories over future world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, multiple Grand Slam champion Venus Williams and Daniela Hantuchova (coming from 0-6, 0-2 down to win the match).

Unfortunately, she could not maintain her good form in the final, going down to a rampant Maria Sharapova, though she won more games against the Russian than any other player (eight) and was the only player to make her win seven games to win a set.

Neither of the Serbian women have returned to the quarter finals Down Under since. Ana Ivanovic came close last and this year, reaching the fourth round, while Jelena Jankovic’s best effort was reaching the fourth round in 2009 and 2012.

This year Ivanovic advanced to the fourth round at Jankovic’s expense, defeating her in the third round. As both women reached the fourth round last year, Jankovic’s loss meant she lost 120 rankings points, while Ivanovic successfully defended her rankings points from the previous year.

Ana Ivanovic would later achieve the ultimate success at the French Open later that year.

As the runner-up in 2007 many thought that she would go all the way in 2008, but she had to endure a tough draw which included potentially having to face Serena Williams (whom she has never won more than four games in a set against) in the quarter finals and Jelena Jankovic in the semi finals.

Ivanovic’s draw suddenly opened up with the third round exit of Williams, who, following the sudden retirement of Justine Henin, was the only former champion left in the draw, having won the event in 2002.

The semi-final against Jankovic was a historic match, as it would determine which of the Serbian women would become world No. 1 for the first time.

Appropriately, the match went to three sets (the only such match Ivanovic played during the tournament) and it was the younger Serb who pulled through and eventually went on to win the title, defeating surprise finalist Dinara Safina in the championship match.

Upon winning the French Open, Ivanovic reached world No. 1 for the first time in her career, with Jankovic not far behind at world No. 2.

The scene had been set for Serbian dominance in the women’s game. But since then, both women have underperformed on the WTA Tour.

At Wimbledon that year, all the Serbs lost early. Novak Djokovic went out in the second round to eventual semi-finalist Marat Safin, Ivanovic followed 48 hours later and Jankovic was stopped before the quarter-finals.

Since the end of 2008, both women have only gone past the early rounds at Majors just once (Jankovic reached the 2010 French Open semi finals, while Ivanovic reached the US Open quarter-finals last year) and have fallen down the rankings in contrasting circumstances.

Ana Ivanovic has not won a title (or reached a championship match) since winning the 2011 Tournament of Champions (an alternate to the higher-level WTA Tour Championships), while only overnight, Jelena Jankovic won her first WTA Tour title since 2010 with victory in Bogota.

While Jelena Jankovic consistently remained in the Top 10 until 2011, Ana Ivanovic struggled with her confidence and by July 2010 she had hit a low point of world No. 65.

But things would turn around for the better and by the end of that year she was back in the world’s top 20 after more than one year.

Last year saw almost the exact opposite. Jelena Jankovic started the season ranked World No. 13 and Ana Ivanovic world No. 22.

By the end of that year, they had swapped positions. Jankovic struggled to get anything going in the first half of the year and for the second year in a row she didn’t land a single WTA Tour title or reach a single Major quarter-final.

Neither did Ivanovic, however she did produce her best season since 2008 (37 wins, 21 losses) and reached her first Major quarter-final since that glorious day in Paris, at the US Open.

Worryingly, both players went 0-5 against the year-end top four (Ivanovic lost to Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova twice each, and Serena Williams once, while three of Jankovic’s losses were to Agnieszka Radwanska and once each to Azarenka and Williams).

This year Ivanovic has struggled to make an impact on the Tour, yet to reach a single quarter-final this season, despite having numerous chances. However, she did team up with Novak Djokovic in their bid to win the Hopman Cup, only to be pipped by Spain in the decider.

Jankovic on the other hand has just won the title in Bogota, ending an almost-three year title drought, last saluting at Indian Wells in 2010.

With virtually nothing to defend from now until the US Open, Jankovic can at least target a return to the Top 20 (or maybe even the Top 10) by the end of the season.

Indian Wells is just around the corner. For Ana Ivanovic, it is her most successful tournament, having reached the quarter-finals or better in five appearances in the Californian desert.

In the last two years, she knocked out the defending champion (Jankovic in 2011 and Caroline Wozniacki last year) before the quarter-finals, only to end up losing to the eventual finalist (Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova) afterwards.

She was the champion in 2008, and came close to defending her title in 2009 when she was pipped in the final by Vera Zvonareva. She reached the semi finals last year, where she had to retire in the second set against Sharapova due to a hip injury.

Ivanovic will be seeded 12th for the event (actually, her current world ranking is No. 13, but top-ranked Serena Williams annually boycotts the event due to a controversy which occurred a decade ago), which means she will avoid one of the Top Four in the fourth round.

Can Ivanovic take advantage of this to continue her success at Indian Wells? Potential fourth round opponents are Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and our very own Samantha Stosur.

Only against the latter does Ivanovic has a losing record against, but worryingly, has lost her past meetings against Kvitova and Errani, and has not faced Kerber since 2006 (Ivanovic won their only ever meeting).

For Jelena Jankovic, Indian Wells presents a very good opportunity for her to return to the world’s Top 20.

As a second round loser to Jamie Hampton last year, Jankovic will have virtually nothing to defend at this event, as well as Miami.

Strong runs at both tournaments could see Jankovic back in the world’s Top 20 by the end of March. These two tournaments will be very important for both players leading into the European clay court season, which both players don’t tend to enjoy any more.

Whether both players can return to their 2007-2008 form remains to be seen.

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