When Jelena Jankovic came to Dubai for her pre-season training at the end of 2012, it was the first time she had finished a season outside the top-20 in six years, and clearly that didn’t go down well with her.
It was a low point and, speaking at the time, she spelled out her determination to turn things around and somehow you could tell she really meant it.
Fast forward a little over 12 months and Jankovic finds herself ranked No7 in the world, having ended the year with a final showing in Beijing and semi-final appearance at the WTA Championships, falling to world No1 Serena Williams both times.
During the season, she ended a three-year title drought by lifting the trophy in Bogota, made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and reached finals in Charleston and Beijing.
Jankovic admits it was a year to be proud of, but despite having recaptured her place among the game’s elite, she is still thirsty for more over the next 11 months. The Serb, who will soon turn 29, is looking to step things up once again this season.
“I think you can always do better, nothing will ever be perfect. But I think I’ve come a long way in 2013,” Jankovic said. “It was a comeback year for me. I was able to come back to the top eight after almost falling out of the top 30 at the beginning of the season after getting injured in Australia.
“It was a year where I’ve worked very hard physically and mentally because it was even tougher mentally just to get that belief back. I also needed to get my confidence back, which I’ve lacked in the two years before that.
“So I think it was a big step forward for me and I’m proud of myself and my team that I was able to achieve that. So I hope to add new things to my game this year to continue to work hard and improve.
“Now that I’m here again, back in the top eight. It’s a number but it proves that you’ve done well.
"I would like to do well in the big tournaments, in the Grand Slams, in those premier events. I want to continue to add some new things to my game, improve certain segments in my game to improve even more.
“I’m not really focused on rankings right now, I’m focusing on the quality of my game and just being a better player every day.”
Jankovic has made two semi-finals in Brisbane and Doha already this season, along with a second-week showing at the Australian Open.
The former world No1 is a four-time semi-finalist at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where she also made the final on debut back in 2005. She’s hoping she can finally go one better and grab the title this week at the Aviation Club.
Jankovic recalls some good memories from her final here nine years ago. “Oh it was a long time ago. I was young. I played against Lindsay Davenport.
“I was about 19 years old. I remember that I played an awesome tournament. It was a wonderful experience for me to be in the finals at that age, at that stage, and I remember I lost 6-4 in the third against Davenport in a great final.
“I’ve been many times a semi-finalist, I think I’ve done pretty well at the tournament, so I’d love to win it, that’s my next goal," revealed Jankovic, who has residency in Dubai and is a frequent visitor to the emirate.
Most veterans on tour aren’t interested in making changes to their game so late in their careers. They hire coaches to help them mentally, make small adjustments, but few can claim that they’re willing to make the necessary changes to achieve bigger goals.
But Jankovic says she’s not one of those people. She’s been putting in the hours to get better in many aspects of her game.
“I think I’ve improved a lot of shots in my game which has made a big difference,” says the Belgrade-native. “I think my serve has been much better and my return, and just constructing the points a lot better, playing a lot smarter… those little things I think that make a big difference at the end.
“You analyse in what situations you are doing good, what you are doing when you’re not doing good – you try to learn from that and that’s basically how you grow.”
She maintains that she still wants to win a grand slam but rather than draw inspiration from the achievements of her peers, like Li Na, who recently captured her second major in Australia at the age of 31, Jankovic prefers to motivate herself from within.
She made the finals at the US Open back in 2008 and has five grand slam semi-finals in her resume. She’s made only one quarter-final though in her last 15 majors.
“I’m not really a person who looks at other players and what they’ve done, what they’ve achieved. It’s more about what I can do myself or what I can achieve in my career,” says Jankovic. “You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You’re playing the sport because you love the sport. You challenge yourself and prove to yourself that you can achieve certain things in your career.
“I think I’ve done quite a lot and my goal, my dream is to win one Grand Slam. But even if it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve been a finalist, I’ve been so many times a semi-finalist.
“But I would like to do that, so I would like to make that one more step and have that under my belt.”
JJ’ s Dubai Moments
efeats Sam Stosur 6-3, 5-7, 7-6. Jankovic came back from 0-3 down in the final set to beat Stosur and make the semis.
Defeats Martina Hingis 7-6, 6-2. Jankovic reached her second Dubai semifinal by taking out Hingis, ranked No6 at the time.
Defeats Serena Williams 6-0, 4-3 RET. A 19-year-old Jankovic reached her second career WTA final when Serena, ranked No2 at the time retired with an injury.
Lost to Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. Jankovic pushed the then-world No1 Davenport to three sets before succumbing to the American.
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World No1 Serena Williams admitted she was rusty but was thrilled to survive a difficult first set to beat Russia’s 24th-ranked Ekaterina Makarova and secure a spot in the third round at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
In her first match back since her Australian Open fourth round loss four weeks ago, Williams was broken in her opening service game and was trailing the powerful lefty for most of the first set.
Returning from a back injury, Williams was clearly frustrated with herself but managed to break Makarova, who was serving for the opening set 5-4, to force a tiebreak.
The breaker was also a tough battle but the top seed eventually triumphed, saving two set points before edging ahead on her third opportunity, as the crowd sighed with relief.
Williams then cruised to a 5-0 lead in the second set but struggled in a marathon sixth game, saving three break points before sealing the match.
“Today was really difficult for me. I felt so rusty out there and a little frustrated. I have been practicing. I was like ‘gosh, this isn’t what I practiced’. But I was just really excited to get through that,” said Williams.
Williams also revealed that her her back was feeling fine and she’s ready for her doubles match today alongside her sister Venus.
In a bizarre coincidence, Serena and Venus will face the players they respectively beat in singles in their opening doubles match this afternoon, with Makarova partnering Elena Vesnina.
“They are actually great doubles players, so we have a tough battle in front of us, but we are playing, having fun, we have nothing to lose,” said Serena.
Serena, who has never won the title in Dubai, will play the winner of the second round clash between Jelena Jankovic and Lucie Safarova in her next singles match.
Earlier on Centre Court, Ana Ivanovic almost let a 5-1 lead in the final set tiebreak slip through her fingers before she recovered to beat world No8 Angelique Kerber 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (8/6) and move into the second round.
In a high quality clash between two top-12 players, it was Ivanovic who broke first, taking advantage of a slow start from Kerber, but the German recovered and managed to open up a 4-2 lead.
Kerber broke Ivanovic to love to take the first set but the former world No1 stormed back in the second, breaking in the very first game thanks to some thunderous forehand winners.
The No6 seed kept pressuring Ivanovic and she finally broke back in the sixth game, drawing the error from the Serb after a long rally. But this time, Ivanovic broke back immediately, and the former French Open champion got her first set point with a brilliant cross court forehand winner and she took it to level the match when Kerber sent a forehand long.
The German broke early in the decider but Ivanovic drew level. Ivanovic squandered three match points on Kerber’s serve at 6-5 and she had to save a match point herself in the breaker but the Serb clinched the match on her fourth opportunity, taking the tiebreak, the set and the match in two hours.
“She’s such a tough competitor, and she retrieves lots of balls. You just have to win points over and over again,” said Ivanovic of Kerber.
In the third round today, Ivanovic takes on Venus, whom she beat last month in the Auckland final.
“It’s going to be tough match,” said Ivanovic. “She’s playing a lot better again. It’s going to be good match.”
Caroline Wozniacki admitted that she was being inspired by the imminence of her wedding to Rory McIlroy after bringing about a great survival in the first round of the Dubai Open.
The former world number one from Denmark seemed pleased enough with her performance in recovering from a set, 0-1 and love 40 down to beat Sabine Lisicki, the Wimbledon finalist, but looked transformed with joy when talking about marrying the former world number one golfer from Northern Ireland.
"I am so excited – it's such an exciting time," Wozniacki said after her 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Lisicki which, it transpired, had not really been the thing uppermost in her mind.
"We have set the date," she admitted, without being prepared to say when that was. Was it this year? "You never know," she responded, but with a mile wide smile which gave the impression that it was.
Wozniacki was more forthcoming when asked whether she is a better golfer than he is a tennis player.
"It used to be I was a better golfer, but it's not any more, because in the off season he was hitting every day," she said. "So that's not fair.
"I started hitting it decent after I hit for a couple of weeks, and I'm really happy and pumped and excited, and then I don't play for four months, and then I come back and I'm back to zero."
She was able to turn the match against Lisicki around partly because she maintained a very high percentage of first serves even when under severe pressure from one of the hardest hitters in the game, but also because she got a lot of return of serves back deep.
That opened up more opportunities to attack, and enabled her to make her backhand more offensive and to get Lisicki moving rather more.
A break of serve early in the final set, to take her to 3-1, consolidated to 4-1, also altered the psychology of the contest, an advantage which Wozniacki, intensifying her focus, was determined to cling to.
She now plays, not Samantha Stosur, the former US Open champion from Australia, but a qualifier, Annicka Beck, the world number 50 from Germany, who prevailed 1-6, 6-1, 6-4.
Wozniacki may now fancy her chances of winning the Dubai title again, but winning in successive weeks can be a difficult proposition, as Simona Halep, whose brilliant performances earned her last week's Doha title, quickly discovered.
The young Romanian had been fortunate to get through that week with a persistent achilles problem.
Now her injury was too fragile to survive another pounding and she quit after only two games of the second set against Alize Cornet, the French number one. the score was 6-1, 1-1 retired.