With a new coach, and a first qualifying experience since 2004, Jelena Jankovic booked herself a spot in the Qatar Total main draw with a battling 6-1, 6-7 (6), 6-4 win over Tsvetana Pironkova on Monday in Doha.
The former world No1 last played in the qualifying round of a tournament 13 years ago and considering how unfamiliar the situation is for her, she actually did not sign up for Doha and had to receive a wildcard just to play in the preliminaries.
Jankovic, 31, won three qualifying matches to earn a place in the main draw against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova today.
The Serb is down to No50 in the world after suffering a shoulder injury and a health scare last season but has hired a new coach, former world No8 Guillermo Canas of Argentina, and is looking to climb back up the rankings.
“It feels great to qualify. First of all I’m really not used to playing qualifying, now I know how hard it is and what it takes to play,” Jankovic told Sport360 on Monday night.
“You have to win three matches, which is not easy, and all these players they play so well and they fight. I’m glad I was even able to play in the qualifying because I wasn’t in the draw, on the list, so I got a wildcard into the qualifying. I’m thankful even for that, to have that opportunity and luckily I was able to pass those three rounds and here I am in the main draw again.
“I didn’t sign in, I didn’t even know how it works. It’s been since 2004 (since I played qualies) and now it’s 2017, so it’s been many years since I’ve been in this situation. I had a tough last year with a lot of injuries and I need to come back, I need to get my ranking up.”
Canas has previously coached Russia’s Teymuraz Gabashvili and was part of Kei Nishikori’s team. The 39-year-old is new to the women’s game and Jankovic admits his first on-court coaching visits – that are only allowed on the WTA not the ATP – were novel experiences for Canas.
“It’s a new partnership, we just started this week, we’ve just been working for a couple of days before this tournament. It’s a brand new relationship, just new ideas, someone new just to kind of change it up. We’ll see how it goes, so far so good,” said Jankovic.
“I was looking for a coach, he was available, and through my agent, we just thought let’s give it a try, let’s see.
“He’s actually not familiar with that rule (on-court coaching) because in men’s tennis they don’t have that so when I told him we have on court coaching he’s like ‘how does that work, how many times can I get on court?’
“He’s getting used to that rule, it’s kind of cool. But I think it takes time to get used to women’s tennis and our rules and the way we kind of work.”
Jankovic says she has put all her physical problems behind her and is now keen on getting her confidence back. She made the third round at the Australian Open last month but is winless in the three other tournaments she has contested so far in 2017.
She could have sealed her match against Pironkova in straight sets but after climbing from a break down in the second, she squandered two match points to drop the tiebreak. Jankovic recovered in the decider though.
“I’m feeling good but I need to get my game up there and of course my confidence and just being comfortable in the matches, being in those situations all over again, match in, match out, day in, day out, compete and fight and find my way,” said the former US Open runner-up.
“I should’ve been in the locker room an hour earlier but that’s tennis and yes of course I was disappointed when I lost that second set (against Pironkova), I had two match points, it was tough to digest that but I had to forget about what happened and I just tried hang in there. One point at a time, fight hard, and I got myself through that one. It was a tough match…
“The conditions as well here are not so easy, it’s windy, it’s cold, the balls are heavy, especially in the night time. If you play during the day it’s a bit different but at night you’ve got to work.”
The Middle East swing is upon us and main draw action kicked off on Monday night in Doha although rain suspended the match between Anastasija Sevastova and Sam Stosur, who was leading 7-5, 4-3 before the players were ushered off court.
The weather in Doha so far has made us feel that we’re at Wimbledon, not the Arabian Gulf, and the conditions have been wet, windy and relatively cold for this part of the world.
The top four seeds, headlined by world No2 Angelique Kerber, all have byes in the opening round and are meant to start their campaigns tomorrow. But with thunderstorms forecasted today as well, it’s likely players will have to contest two matches in one day for the tournament to end on Saturday as previously scheduled.
Dodgy weather aside, here are the main WTA storylines to look ahead to over the next fortnight in Doha and Dubai.
Will the No1 ranking switch sides again?
Kerber lost her top spot to Serena Williams after the Australian Open but she can return to the summit if she makes the finals in both Doha and Dubai this month. She has unseated Serena once before and has a chance to do it again.
Can Muguruza find consistency?
Garbine Muguruza winning the French Open feels like a lifetime ago. The Spanish world No7 had a promising start to the year, making semis in Brisbane and quarters at the Australian Open, but she was hampered by an adductor problem there. She comes to Doha after suffering a humbling defeat to Karolina Pliskova in Fed Cup. She can possibly avenge that loss here in Qatar with both of them drawn to face-off in the last-eight. Muguruza made quarters last year in Doha and is a former semi-finalist in Dubai. Maybe the Gulf will witness her resurrection.
Is Konta ready for her Middle East debut?
World No10 Johanna Konta has never played in Dubai or Doha. She pulled out of action this week in Qatar after she helped Great Britain beat Croatia to reach the Fed Cup World Group II play-offs. She’s still scheduled for Dubai though and can be buoyed by the British-heavy crowd of the UAE to go deep in the Premier 5 tournament.
Is Kasatkina ready for another upset?
Russian teen Daria Kasatkina shocked Kerber in Sydney last month. The world No32 made her Doha debut last year and can set-up a rematch with Kerber should she beat Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round.
There are two types of players: one who scales a new height and is content with that achievement, and another who immediately starts plotting for their next climbing expedition. Dominika Cibulkova belongs to the latter category.
The Slovak is at a career-high world No5 ranking following a standout 2016 that ended with her claiming her biggest title to date at the WTA Finals in Singapore – one of four trophies she captured last season.
This time last year, Cibulkova was ranked No66 in the world and was fighting her way back after an Achilles’ surgery derailed her career in 2015.
Today, Cibulkova is the No3 seed in a stacked Qatar Open field and is adjusting to the fact she now has the words ‘world No5’ typed next to her name.
“Of course you have to think about it because this is something I feel. I’m in a new position. It’s something I have to get used to or to start to see normal because, of course, I’m in the situation for the first time,” Cibulkova admitted in Doha, where she is appearing for the first time since 2013.
“Of course, you feel bigger pressure. The players just come on the court and they really want to beat you because they have nothing to lose. Even I was top 20 or even before I was top 10, to be in top five is still a different position.
“I’m trying to not panic that this is something new for me. I’m trying to work on myself every day and get used to it.”
The 2014 Australian Open runner-up is renowned for her relentless fight on the court and that grit translates into unlimited ambition off it.
Asked if she believes she can move up higher in the rankings, Cibulkova said: Yeah, for sure. I’m 100 per cent convinced I can improve on the ranking. This is the mentality I need to have.
“I can see it go even further. If I would only want to stick to my ranking, I would be afraid that I don’t want to lose the ranking, that’s the mentality that would really not help me. This is something I’m trying to work on with my coach and with my team. As I said, this is a new position for me. I’m trying to work out things well.”
Cibulkova made seven finals last year on all surfaces – clay, grass, indoor and outdoor hard courts – and exhibited the kind of consistency throughout the season that other top players can only dream of.
The 27-year-old is hoping she can keep things going in 2017. She’s played four tournaments so far this year, with her best results being a semi-final appearance in St. Petersburg earlier this month and a third round exit at the Australian Open.
Quizzed about the key behind her consistency last year, Cibulkova said: “I wasn’t thinking to be consistent at all. I was just really, really focusing on my next match I had ahead. I wasn’t paying attention to results. Of course, the good results give you confidence. But I always wanted more last year. I wasn’t satisfied with any results. I think all these details and all these things came together, and that’s why I had such a great year.
“But there was last year, and now it’s a new year. The time flew really, really fast. It was just crazy how fast there is a new season. It’s already started. I want to be here right now and playing good tennis.”
Cibulkova is in Doha for the first time in four years and hasn’t won a match here since 2010. She’s looking to change that though this week in the Qatari capital.
“This time of the year has for me always been a little bit strange, you know, because you’re after the big tournament, after the Australian Open. Then there’s Indian Wells and Miami just a few weeks ahead.
“I didn’t play this tournament for a while. When I came here, it was mostly after Fed Cup. I was really, really tired. This is finally, finally the first time I can have good preparation. I can hit more. I can get used to the courts and balls and everything around here.
“I’m really looking forward for my first match. I’m feeling fine on the court. Just to get maybe – well, not maybe. By winning matches, you get more confidence. This is what I expect.”
Cibulkova has a bye in the first round and awaits the winner of the clash between Jelena Jankovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.