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TennisOne Features

Jankovic No. 1 Dream Nearly Realized

Matthew Cronin

If her sore knee holds up and she snares her first East West Bank Classic trophy, Jelena Jankovic will become the first woman in the Open Era to have reached the top spot without having reached a Grand Slam final.

Her ascendance may not last long, as current No. 1 Anan Ivanovic, her heated rival and fellow Serbian, could regain that designation next week in Montreal.

Jankovic talks about her injury and her conditioning.

But for Jankovic, who adores the spotlight and has worked diligently to get herself into the position, having an asterisk attached to her name won't mute the feeling of joy.

"Since I was a young girl it's been my dream and every player's dream to become No. 1 and by achieving that, you take the monkey off your back," said Jankovic. "When you get older, at least one day you can say you were No. 1 and no one can take that away from you. You are in history and it's a great achievement. But I would also like to win a grand slam, to take that step forward and go to the next level."

She's taken numerous steps in her life and career, coming to the United States when she was 12 to train at the Nick Bollettieri in Florida and battling it out against some of the world's most ambitious juniors. Two of her junior foes at the time at Bollettieri's grew up to be notable pros - three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, and former top 20 player Tatiana Golovin of France, who is currently on the mend from injury.

There was plenty of blood sweat and tears spilled on the South Florida courts.

"I know Tatiana better because Maria is more at a distance," Jankovic said. "I just saw Tatiana ands she's a nice girl. I know Maria a little less because all the kids were competing at an early age. We always wanted to be better than the other. That's why we are great competitors now when we got older. We want to fight, play the matches, we love the challenges. I didn't want to practice. I wanted to compete and go play matches on the back courts. At Bollettieri's there are like 150 courts and we played -- fat kids, thin kids, 15-year-olds, 20 year-olds and we just played and it made it better."

Few of the top women players have multiple player friends on tour of the same sex, including Jankovic and Sharapova. They were not brought up to enjoy ice cream socials together or team up in school projects. They were trained to beat down anyone in their path in an individual sport. Holding hands and singing songs was not put at a premium.

Click photo: Jankovic is the ultimate extrovert, whose every emotion is apparent on her face on court.

"We were fighting, competing against each other we were doing anything to win," she said. "We were girls at an young age that had rivalries. It should be like that on court but when you leave the court you should be able to go out and have normal life."

Jankovic has a delightful yet slightly nutty personality. She is the ultimate extrovert, whose every emotion is apparent on her face on court. She smiles, she yells, she laughs, she slaps at herself.

She takes winning quite seriously, but not at the total expense of enjoyment.

"I'm very outgoing and I like to have fun. I like to be a copy of myself and I have my own image and attitude," Jankovic said. "It's a very small amount of people in tennis who have a good sense of humor and have a good time and just be themselves. Most are serious and try to do their job and not to show any emotion. They are kind of plain."

The 23-year-old Serb has had a tough year physically. She contracted a few viruses and tore a meniscus in her knee at Wimbledon. On court, she's been very good, but not great. She owns one title, Rome, and reached two Grand Slam semifinals, the Australian and French Opens. In Paris, she held a 3-1 in the third set over Ivanovic in the semifinals before she began playing defensively and Ivanovic hit right through her.

That's was the last time that Jankovic played for the No.1 ranking and the defeat stung.

Click photo: I just go out there and try to play my best and
want to win

"Throughout the whole Roland Garros I was in pain and it was by luck that I got there," she said. " I'm strong in that way that I don't like to give up and retire. I always think that even if I'm hurt and in pain I can come out the winner. [But] she was the better player. It was a couple of points either way. She played a couple points where a big forehand went in rather than going out. But it was her time. Maybe my time will come later."

Even though she says it's hard to smile through her pain, she does a good job of it anyway. Her attacking inside the baseline game isn't always colorful, but when she's on, it's quite a effective.

What always seems to be on is her relationship with the crowds, who love how she wears her emotions on her pink dress.

"It comes out natural," she said. "People can tell if I'm hurt, happy, down, or having fun. You can tell how I m feeling. I express myself. I can't fake it. Whatever I do come outs for real. It's organic. It's not fake."

Some other players have said that Jankovic is too much of a ham and should stop messing around on court, but she finds that impossible, because she looks for the bright side of life, even in torturous three setters.

"My personality is more a happy face than a miserable one," she said. "It's important to be yourself. "Some people may like you. Some may not, but being yourself is the most important thing. I'm who I am and can't change and I don't want to be someone else or copy someone else and some of the girls do. They copy each other and try to be someone else. You should be your own version, It's not right."

Without the Williams sisters, Sharapova, or Ivanovic in the draw, Jankovic is the top draw at the East West Bank Classic, a position she is well suited to. She's doesn't mind be the ring leader. And she'd love to be wearing a No. 1 necklace on Sunday.

"I like it. Its nice to be the No.1 and hopefully in the future the No. 1 in the world," she said. "Some players feel the pressure of having to win the tournament, I just go out there and try to play my best and want to win, but I don't think everyone wants and expects me to win. I go out with a positive attitude and I'm working on things on the practice court and I'm trying to execute it in the match. I'm trying my best and that's all I want from myself. I don't think of what others expect from me."

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