Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic has jumped to the top of her sport – time to take a look at “Our Favorite Alien”

It was barely a year ago when Jelena Jankovic began to turn her moribund career around. Her start to 2006 was so abysmal she contemplated quitting the game altogether and returning to her studies. Then she started to play better, and capped her Wimbledon last year with a solid win in the fourth round over Venus Williams. She was ranked Number 26 then; now she is Number 3 in the world. Amazing what a little confidence can do for a girl!

This year she had another good Wimbledon, even though she lost in singles in the Round of 16 to surprise finalist Marion Bartoli. Jankovic then hooked up on the spur of the moment with Jamie Murray, brother of Andy. He needed a partner for the Mixed Doubles. Never one to enjoy the practice courts, Jankovic figured it would give her some practice, now that she had been bounced from the singles. Low and behold, this rather quaint pairing got all the way to the finals, where they beat Jonas Bjorkman and Alicia Molik.

Jamie and Jelena became the talk of London. Are they dating, the British press wanted to know. They were all set to babble deliriously over yet another Murray. Brother Andy had to pull out just before the tournament began, so the Brits were on the lookout for anything or anyone from their tribe who could take up the slack. Jamie and Jelena were Heaven sent. Jankovic played coy about the rumors; Murray sounded just relieved he had found a decent partner who could, basically, carry the team. Mommy Murray just sounded…well, annoyed her son had to share the limelight.

Judy Murray is probably going for The Gloria Connors Tennis Mom Award. And nobody will stand in her way, for sure. Have you seen the chin on this chick? It’s made of granite, at least. I bet it takes a punch pretty good. Mom poo-pooed the rumors, basically implying like any good mom that my son – that’s MY SON, got it? – is way too good for that strange-looking girl with the long sculpted face that could have been lifted from a Modigliani painting. He drew roomfuls of elegant long women with elegant long faces. Some of us refer to Jankovic as “our little alien, ” a term of endearment and ownership.

Where does she get those rather Asiatic-looking cheekbones? Her mom is a pleasant, plump bottle blonde who travels everywhere with Jelena. She looks nothing at all like her daughter. I figured she got the look from dad, but we never saw dad. Then he showed up just before Wimbledon at an event, and he looks pleasantly relaxed and also nothing like his daughter. Jankovic says she doesn’t know where her foreign looks come from. “Maybe it was the postman, ” she quipped to Ubaldo Scanagatta.

Joking around seems to be a big thing for Jankovic. Also perhaps an excellent way to relax yourself in a sport that gives you little opportunities for relaxation. The notion that one can “have fun” in tennis these days is nearly non-existent. Sadly, it may be part of why interest is draining out of the sport. Thank God for Jelena, who takes the cake in the personality department. Why not, she’s probably baked it too. The girl is a ham. Wherever she hatched from, we are glad of it. But where does she go from here with her game?

She needs to start beating the very top women on a regular basis. She’ll be seeing a lot of them now as she gets more and more into the later rounds. She has beaten some of them, now she needs to beat more of them. Especially someone like Justine Henin. Although Jankovic has yet to beat the Belgian, they have had a medley of interesting, competitive matches. It’s only a matter of time. She had a good win over Maria Sharapova at Birmingham, a run-up event to Wimbledon. Jankovic had to come back in that match, and it gave her a ton of confidence. She needs to gather herself better at the big moments in big matches.

There is one specific change I would suggest: work on that serve, honey! She is so solid off both wings, she can hold her own at net, and her retrieving capabilities are tremendous; she can run down any ball because of her great movement and athleticism. Her fearlessless and ability to compete are top flight. But her serve should be as powerful as her ground strokes, and it’s not. Her second serve is about as horrible as Elena Dementieva’s, and we all know how horrible that is(!) It needs to be more of a weapon, not something that merely starts the point off.

Because she doesn’t like to practice much, Jankovic enters a lot of tournaments. Way too many. She should take a page from the Federer playbook: longer periods off, but go for quality play in challenging tournaments that you select carefully. A little discrimination is a good thing. It will add longevity to her career while keeping her energy level high. Besides, I for one am looking forward to a good decade with Jelena, she is certainly the most fun we’ve had on the women’s side for a while.

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