Wozniacki, Jankovic: Outlooks differ, results same
Jelena Jankovic has been where Caroline Wozniacki is now: a young, happy-go-lucky player with massive potential who easily puts losses behind her, convinced her next big win is just around the corner.
That's not today's J.J., who has struggled mightily to remain relevant on a WTA Tour that two-time U.S. Open champion and Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin calls soft on top, but with tremendous depth. But that is today's Wozniacki, who almost never shows a dark side, puts on a happy face and focuses each day on incremental improvement.
On Wednesday at Indian Wells, third-ranked Wozniacki cooled off the red-hot Jie Zheng, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, using her superior athleticism, dogged defensive skills and a full-court press of an offense to pull off the victory.
Wozniacki isn't the most powerful player on tour, but she's fairly tall, strong and can club backhands with anyone. She appears to be adding more spice to her serve, is developing a reasonably effective inside-out forehand and can torch a return of serve.
She isn't a see-me, hear-me type of woman constantly begging for attention and touting her achievements. She's outgoing, but modest. She's ambitious, but realistic. She may not be bold enough for some, but, as Austin says, she seems level-headed. She's no Nicole Vaidisova, the two-time Grand Slam semifinalist who just retired at the age of 20 and spent almost all of her career looking glum and kicking herself for not being perfect.
“Not being a complete perfectionist can be very helpful, because you are able to put your losses behind you and move ahead,” Austin said. “Being a bit of a perfectionist is good to get you to the pros, but once you are there, you have to learn to deal with ups and downs. Caroline seems to be doing a good job of that.”
A winner of six career titles, Wozniacki hasn't had a great season coming into Indian Wells, talking two losses to No. 10 Na Li, in the first round of Sydney and in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and falling in the third round of Dubai to Shahar Peer. At the start of Indian Wells, she said she wasn't overly pleased with her results, but felt her level was right where she wanted it to be and the wins would come. But as Austin said, if Wozniacki wants to consistently challenge for big titles, it's about time she acknowledges that she needs to find losing to players below her ability level unacceptable.
“Na Li is a very good, but not great player,” Austin said. “You don't want to get used to taking those kind of losses if you're an elite player. Caroline is still learning to manage the expectations that others put on her, but she also has to be aware of what are the right expectations she should have of herself.”
Wozniacki has never won a title the size of Indian Wells, which is a Premier tournament, and while the Slam-winning likes of Henin, Clijsters, Sharapova and Kuznetsova haven't stood in her path here, just being able to find a way to overcome the rest of the field will give her a tremendous boost of confidence.
She'll play her close friend Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals, the crafty, eighth-ranked Pole who could also use a title this size, but doesn't have Wozniacki's upside. Radwanska also has significant improvements to make, but because of her small stature is somewhat limited, while Wozniacki, who is the daughter of a soccer player, should be able to add a lot more pop and variety in her game in the coming years. Plus, she has that ever-important intangible: fight.
“She has a lot of passion for the game and really competes well, “ Austin said. “Part of the reason that she's such an excellent defender is because she's willing to dig for balls and stay in points as long as it takes. Plus, she knows she has a lot of room for improvement, and that's a good thing, because it shows she has already peaked.”
Jankovic has certainly peaked ranking wise, as she ended 2008 ranked No. 1 despite not having won a major. However, that year she did win three Premier titles, sprinted her way to the U.S. Open final and reached the quarterfinals of 20 of the 22 tournaments she played.
Yet the speedster felt the weight of being the world's so-called best weigh on her shoulders and overplayed to the point where her body began to slowly break down. It seemed as if at every tournament she was complaining of an illness or nagging injury. Although she had spates of good play in 2009, such as winning the Premier title in Cincinnati, she failed to reach the quarters of a major. Until this week, 2010 had been mostly frustrating. She fell to Alona Bondarenko in the third round of the Australian Open, took opening-round losses in Sydney and Monterrey and parted with her coach, Ricardo Sanchez. The only time she showed clutch play was in her two singles wins over Russia in Serbia's 3-2 loss in Fed Cup.
Therefore, Jankovic was quite pleased to reach her first semifinal of the year with a 6-4, 6-4 victory Thursday over Russia's hard-hitting Alisa Kleybanova at Indian Wells.
“When I played semifinals (at Indian Wells in 2008), I was basically doing well in every tournament that I played,” she said. "I haven't been playing well, so it's nice to get that feeling back and to be winning again and to be in the end of the tournament again. It's nice to get used to the situation where when you are coming to the grounds when there are only a few players left in the locker room and you're one of them.”
Austin said the key for Jankovic is not only to find a way to stay motivated, but also to not play too defensively and to trust her shots. She has to believe when the points get tight she can deliver those scorching groundstrokes close to the lines that once brought her to the top spot.
“Last year, there were too many times that she was making multiple errors and her opponents began to sense that she wasn't the same steady player,” Austin said. “She's got to be able to put the ball where she wants to again and again, and that only comes with belief.”
Jankovic has never played well when she's not letting her emotions fly, and if she's looking too cool and comfortable on the court, it's likely she isn't fired up. When she's chiding herself to get her feet moving, frowning after unforced errors or smiling large after impressive shots, that's when her fans know she cares and is very dangerous. At least this week in the desert, JJ has been showing her teeth.
“It's nice to get that feeling back,” said Jankovic, who will play Aussie Sam Stosur in the semifinals. “The satisfaction that you feel after you win a match, after you fought very hard and you beat a tough opponent, I think it doesn't get better than that. That's why you play tennis. You play for that joy.”