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Another Grand Slam, another Serbian flop

Roar Guru
4th September, 2013
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Another Grand Slam has passed by and once again both of Serbia’s leading women have disappointed on the big stage.

While one disappointed, another pushed one of the contenders to the limit with a commendable performance which made up for a heavy mauling at Wimbledon last year.

Jelena Jankovic was heavily thrashed by China’s Li Na 6-3, 6-0 on Sunday night, struggling with her serve all match and losing all of the break points that she faced on her own serve.

Her loss followed Novak Djokovic’s brilliant performance against Joao Sousa, kicking off what was being touted as a big night on Arthur Ashe Stadium featuring the Serbian number ones on both the men’s and women’s tour.

The loss keeps Jankovic out of the US Open quarter-finals for the fifth straight year, having not gone that far since losing the final to Serena Williams in 2008.

In the five years since, she crashed out in the second round to Yaroslava Shvedova in 2009 after holding match points in the final set, then lost to Kaia Kanepi in 2010, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in 2011, and Agnieszka Radwanska last year, all in the third round.

I was convinced that Jankovic, who will turn 29 next year, was back after winning her first title in three years at Bogota in February, reaching the semi-finals in Miami and reaching the quarter-finals at the French Open.

But her meek exit to Li Na, who has now reached her first semi-final at Flushing Meadows, will no doubt raise questions about whether she can continue to contend at the big tournaments in years to come.

If there is any consolation, Jankovic will soon return to the world’s top ten, replacing Petra Kvitova, who ironically replaced her there in May 2011 before winning Wimbledon two months later.

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Ana Ivanovic also flopped, but fared much better than Jankovic, delivering a spirited performance against world number two Victoria Azarenka in a thrilling match on Tuesday.

She dominated her Belarusian opponent in the first set, producing winner after winner as she won a set against a top ten opponent for the first time since winning the 2008 French Open.

She then started dropping off, letting slip a good chance to claim what would have been her best victory at a Grand Slam since 2007 (when she mauled Maria Sharapova at the French Open).

Last year’s run to the final eight in New York marked her best performance at Grand Slam level since that aforementioned glory at Roland Garros five years ago.

The 25-year-old Serbian has found success hard to come by in recent years, having not captured a title since November 2011. She’s also languished outside the top ten for more than four years, at one stage ranked as low as 65 after holding the No. 1 ranking only 24 months earlier.

She fired her coach Nigel Sears after Wimbledon, despite boasting a healthy win-loss record for the year and having reached the semi-finals in Madrid, where she thrashed then-world number six Angelique Kerber in the quarter-finals.

A series of frustrating losses and a lack of progress were the main reasons behind the decision, and Ivanovic now works with coaches from the Adidas development program.

Since splitting from Sears, Ivanovic is 7-4, and 30-17 overall for the year, two wins down from this time last year.

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Each of the four defeats she has suffered since Wimbledon have come in three sets (two of them were very close, and another two were against Victoria Azarenka), while she has also won seven matches, suggesting that there is light at the end of the tunnel for her long-suffering fans worldwide.

Her performance against Azarenka was commendable, especially when you consider this was the same player who crushed her spirits at Wimbledon last year.

The continually disappointing performances by Serbia’s two women contrast significantly to that of the leading male, Novak Djokovic, who is into his 17th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final courtesy of a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 hiding of Spaniard Marcel Granollers.

So what could be to blame for the demise of the Serbian women at the major tournaments?

Jelena Jankovic was the first to win a WTA Tour title, at Budapest in 2004. Ana Ivanovic, however, was the first to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, at the French Open in 2005.

Jankovic reaching the semi-finals at the 2006 US Open cancelled that out, while Ivanovic went one better, and ultimately two better, by reaching the final of the French Open in 2007 and 2008, winning the latter.

Her success in Paris came on the back of Novak Djokovic becoming the first Serbian of either sex to win a Grand Slam title, at the 2008 Australian Open, a tournament which was dominated by the country.

That tournament is one that I still remember well, as the Serbians took centre stage.

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Both the Serbian women defeated the Williams sisters within 24 hours of each other – Jankovic defeating defending champion Serena and Ivanovic dealing Venus a rare defeat 24 hours later.

Both then became the victims of Maria Sharapova’s ultimate redemption story, whereby the Russian defeated Jankovic in the semis and Ivanovic in the final.

Neither Serbian woman has been back to the final eight in Australia since. Their cause was not helped by the fact that they had to meet in the third round this year, with Ivanovic winning a straight-sets battle before ultimately falling foul to Agnieszka Radwanska the following round.

The French Open that year saw Ivanovic win the title. She coasted through a draw which was made easier by the early exit of Serena Williams, who at the time was the only former champion left and who was slated to meet Ivanovic in the quarter-finals.

To this day I still believe Ivanovic was very lucky to win the title. If Serena had stayed on until the final eight, she would have given Ivanovic an ultimate tennis lesson (like she did at the US Open in 2006, as a wild-card entry) and gone on to win title number two at Roland Garros.

Looking back, Ivanovic can now thank Katarina Srebotnik for beating Williams – had that not happened, then the Serb would still be searching for a maiden Grand Slam title.

As it turned out, Ivanovic’s ride to the French Open title wasn’t all that smooth sailing.

Ironically, the only player to win a set off her was her compatriot Jelena Jankovic, who had also gone through a draw eased by the early exit of Venus Williams.

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Think about this – what could have been a Williams sisters showdown in the semi-finals ended up being a battle not just between the two best Serbian women in the world, but also a battle for who would become the first player from their country to top the world rankings.

Ivanovic ultimately won through, and went on to beat Dinara Safina in the final to claim her only Grand Slam title.

After that breakthrough big things were being touted for the Serbians, both male and female.

But while Novak Djokovic has gone on his crusade, adding another five Grand Slam titles to compliment his 2008 Australian Open title, the women have continually disappointed.

Both gradually lost their aura and experienced a drop in the rankings as injuries, poor form and self-doubt started creeping into their games.

Since the beginning of 2010, both Ivanovic and Jankovic have only been able to net five titles between them, and only reach the quarter-finals (or better) at a Grand Slam three times – Jankovic at the 2010 and 2013 French Opens, and Ivanovic at last year’s US Open.

It was also in that year when the two had a personal fallout, with Ivanovic accused of skipping a Fed Cup tie due to a lack of spirit and poor form. Jankovic also mocked her following a heated match at Madrid the same year.

Jankovic has not beaten her younger rival since, and the head-to-head remains 8-3 in Ivanovic’s favour.

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Following the latter’s win in their showdown at this year’s Australian Open, the two parties cleared the air and declared that “there were no more such issues between the two”.

But what do we make now out of the disappointing (but somehow successful) performance by the Serbian women at Flushing Meadows?

Will both women rediscover their potential, or will both crash and burn again?