Last year the top three Serbs were flying high. What happened?

I’m just settling into my seat overlooking center court here in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open. I want to check out Roger Federer’s game and see why he got only one ace in his third round win over Ivo Karlovic. His opponent today is Fernando Gonzalez but before that gets underway, I want to make a few comments about the Serbian trio.

Of course I’m talking about Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Ana Ivanovic. I made a bet with Sakhi that Djokovic would keep on powering his way to slam semifinals and, for sure, I thought he’d get to the final in the Australian Open, but he retired due to heat exhaustion in the quarterfinals. [In an earlier version of this post I said that he hadn’t won anything this year. My error. I forgot that he took the Dubai title.] He let Tommy Haas pull even with him in the second set of their match here before closing him out in the tiebreaker and he looked positively out of sorts doing it.

I had always looked at Djokovic’s hubris as a good way to “fake it till you make it” and I figured that once he’d won a few Masters events and a grand slam title, he’d make the transition from bratty underdog to deserving titleholder. But there was always another component to his arrogance. For whatever reason, he has a “me against the world” complex and it got him in trouble at the US Open last year.

First of all, Tommy Robredo accused Djokovic of faking injuries to take breathers during his five set win over Robredo in the fourth round. After that, Andy Roddick joked that Djokovic might have anthrax, bird flu or Sars for all we know. Djokovic didn’t get the joke and he acted aggrieved in his on-court interview after beating Roddick in the quarterfinals and what had been a journey towards maturity collapsed into a childish fit. Here’s a guy whose delightful parodies of the top players had won him a lot of love, not to mention thousands of youtube hits, and he couldn’t take a joke.

He lost to Federer in the semifinals and had a miserable fall season until he won his first year-end title at the Tennis Masters Cup and I, being forever hopeful, looked for one more step towards maturity because that’s how we all learn – in steps, not smooth trajectories, and the steps are bidirectional: they go down as well as up.

But then the hubris kicked in again and he changed his racket from Wilson to Head at the beginning of this year. Djokovic played with a head racket before and the racket world can be deceptive. Players sometimes switch to a different racket manufacturer but actually play with the same old racket painted to look like the new racket. Or sometimes a racket manufacturer will make a prototype of the old racket for the player so the change isn’t too radical.

But Djokovic admitted racket problems earlier this year, so we can assume his hubris led him to believe that he could adjust to a new racket in the short period after the Tennis Masters Cup and before the Australian Open, and he compounded the matter by celebrating New Year’s Eve in Monte Carlo instead of getting his butt to Brisbane where he lost his first match, therefore messing up his title defense preparation.

Jankovic is another story and no one could ever accuse her of hubris. She always plays too much, not too little. Her story plays right into the current state of sports medicine. At least I think it does. I can’t ask her because she isn’t here anymore – she lost her first match and has only one semifinal to her name all year. After her loss here she explained the problem:

I was really bigger and it was something that I was not used to. I was always a certain weight and always, my best weapon was my legs. I always moved and I had the anticipation and I was always on the ball. Now I just cannot do that.

In the second half of last year she added muscle so she could get a bit more on her serve. At the Los Angeles event she was pleased at winning some easy points on her serve, but added muscle is added weight and she has a dilemma. I liken it to my eye exercises. My eyesight is bad because I’m old. If I do eye exercises to improve my far sight, I impair my near sight and vice versa. I have to keep the two in balance and even then wear glasses so I don’t run over some poor pedestrian in the evening light.

Jankovic is currently ranked number three after ending last year with the number one ranking, but number three is a realistic ranking for her if Serena Williams is healthy and Maria Sharapova returns. If Jankovic bulks up in a bid to compete with Serena and Maria, she loses her most valuable weapon: her speed. If she doesn’t, she drops down the rankings.

But that’s not necessarily true and this is where sports medicine comes in. I’m always asking my trainer, Lenny Parracino, if I can do pull-ups and pushups and lift weights and he always discourages me. Look at the pictures on Lenny’s Kinetic Conditioning site. No one is sitting on a bench lifting weights. They’re all doing a complete movement of some sort and they happen to have weights in their hands.

The idea is to improve the kinetic chain of activity – the step by step procedure your body goes through to complete an activity, not to focus solely on increasing your muscle mass. If Jankovic wants to improve her serve, she needs to improve the mechanics of the entire movement that propels her serve. That typically means balancing the muscles in that movement and it usually involves flexibility which should complement her movement. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask Jankovic but I’m guessing that’s not what she did.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Ana Ivanovic except that she’s playing very well at this event after failing to reach a semifinal all year. She’s only lost one set on her way to the quarterfinals and she seems to be recovering from confidence problems she acquired after injuring her thumb last fall, an injury which came shortly after her first slam title at the French Open.

And that’s what each member of this trio is going through. Djokovic and Ivanovic have each won a slam and each one is trying to climb the mountain back up to their next slam title, while Jankovic is trying to climb the mountain back up to the number one ranking. And that second trip is usually harder than the first.

As for the Federer-Gonzalez match, Gonzalez sprayed balls all over the place to lose the first set 6-3, but he pulled even at 5-5 in the second set. Fed then upchucked a double fault and Gonzo kept enough balls in the court to get the break and serve out to even the match. That double fault was Gonzo’s doing because he was eating up Fed’s second serves and Fed was forced to go for a bit too much on second serves.

I hope Gonzo gets himself a new coach to replace the departed Larry Stefanki. Gonzo’s matches are always accompanied by oohs and ahs for those improbable winners from untenable positions, but he misses as often as he hits and he went back to missing in the third set. Federer won the match 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, but he’s not looking all that convincing.

Djokovic, on the other hand, appears to have found his scrappy defense and that’s good news. He beat Stanislaw Wawrinka in two straight tiebreakers by coming up with big games when he needed them and let’s hope this is one of those steps forward.

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