Saturday, July 9, 2022

The light and the joy are really gone

photo by Daniel Ward

Jelena Jankovic—aka JJ, Drama Queen, Glitter Queen, Queen Chaos, The Empress—has, at long last, officially retired from professional tennis, and in doing so, she leaves behind a legacy that will never, ever be filled by anyone. The hilarious, intelligent, good-natured, rubber-bodied Serb brought fans equal pleasure through both her stunning tennis and her inimitable worldview.

In announcing her retirement, Jankovic wrote: 

"I suddenly stopped playing because I didn't really know the situation with my injury. I didn’t know how long it would last and what would happen, so I left the door open and a year and a half after thebreak, after the last match at the US Open against Kvitova, I was in pain, I couldn't function. As time went on, there was no need for me to say anything, I accepted myself the fate of not being able to compete and play professional tennis anymore. My health is a priority, especially now that I have a child and she needs me."

photo by Daniel Ward

Over the years, I’ve looked at hundreds of photos taken of Jankovic in action, and in each of them, every muscle in her body was activated. Her ability to do wide splits on any surface may have surpassed even the Clijsters Straddle. She was never afraid to fall down, never afraid to hit from a fallen-down position, and—in her peak days—her backhand down the line set the standard for the tour.

Jankovic began her professional career in 2000. 2007-2010 were her glory years. During that three-year period, she won Auckland, Charleston, Rome (twice), Birmingham, Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow, Marbella, Cincinnati, and Indian Wells. Also, in 2008, she was the runner-up in Miami and at the U.S. Open. In 2007, Jankovic won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title (with Jamie Murray).

For a long time, Jankovic’s serve was her only real weakness. Eventually, she turned it into something that was efficient, and—at times—very good, but then she would go through periods in which this skill would diminish. She also had some problems in 2009 when she bulked up. She did it to make herself stronger, but the extra muscle impeded her outstanding movement, so Jankovic then reversed her strength-training regime.

After experiencing an extended professional slump following her peak seasons, during which many fans wrote her off for good, she revived her career in 2013 and returned to the top 10.

The Serbian star won a total of fifteen singles titles and two doubles titles. She played for twelve seasons on the Serbian Fed Cup team, and was a member of the Serbian Olympic Team in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Though she never won a major, Jankovic was a highly accomplished competitor who could beat anyone on a given day. For a long time, she was second only to Venus Williams in her victories over Serena Williams. Jankovic was a clean hitter whose strength lay in her precise baseline game and her astounding athleticism. 

      “I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”


Fond of putting glitter in her hair during night matches, the fashionable Serb was quick to select the red Porsche as part of her prize when she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart—because it matched a pair of heels she had in her closet.

When she became a victim of Wimbledon’s relentless scheduling of top-rated WTA players on outer courts, and was assigned Court 18, her response was: “I was almost playing in the parking lot. I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”

Chaos followed Jankovic everywhere she went. In 2011, in New Haven, she was playing Elena Vesnina, and she suddenly looked up and saw the stands swaying. An earthquake had hit, and there was a stadium evacuation. This wasn’t really funny, of course, but—if you followed Jankovic’s career—it kind of was. A couple of years later, just as Jankovic began her night match in Charleston, the media tent began to shake. There was a terrible storm (not unusual for Charleston), but we all just looked at each other and said: “Jankovic.”

admiring her hospital bracelet (photo by Daniel Ward)
Only Jelena Jankovic could take a moment in the middle of a match so that she could admire herself on the JumboTron. Or do a showy towel shimmy in the middle of a final, or stretch her calves on the umpire’s chair—while the umpire was in it. Only JJ could yell “My feet are hot!” in the middle of a match. She once changed her underwear on court, and she once had a ballboy repair her bra strap. Jankvovic fans know that the Serb seemed to have a never-ending cold throughout her career, and she was often preoccupied with blowing her nose. She was obsessed with her hair.

photo by Daniel Ward
Jankovic saved a lot of her best off-court performances for Charleston, where players tend to get a bit loose and live more in the moment. There was nothing better than watching her and Andrea Petkovic play doubles together. Once, a few members of the media were sitting right behind them on the Althea Gibson Club Court, and a frustrated Jankovic—after struggling mightily to open a sports drink bottle—turned completely around, looked at us, pointed to Petko, and yelled, “What’s wrong with her?! Do something to pump her up!" After they won their opening match in 2014, Jankovic said that playing in that match had been the most fun she had ever had on a tennis court, and I found that easy to believe.

The hilarious duo did a series of Charleston videos with Nick McCarvel that will probably be shown forever. Here’s an example, in which JJ and Petko discuss--among many other things--proper tennis spectator etiquette:

                       “…My hair is like concrete.”


Even better were some of Jankovic’s Charleston press conferences. She once entered the room with a blanket wrapped around her like a cape, and declared herself a superhero. When I asked her what her super power was, she was quick to reply “To talk too much.”

photo by Daniel Ward

Here are some of her Charleston press conference gems:

Do you remember what she (Serena, in Rome) said to you at the net? You exchanged some words about something.
“I don't remember. I really don't remember. I have no idea. You know, I don't know what I was saying just now.”

“You can't glitter during the day. It doesn't shine.”

“A lot of times, you know, my mind just keeps running, and sometimes it makes sense, what I say, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“…my hair is like concrete.”

“I kind of feel like I’m a ballerina. I keep going from side to side.”

“I have these bangs, you know. So they can't fit in the ponytail, so I gotta glue it in. Imagine if I get frustrated with my hair--what would that look like?”

"I'm not too sure about my body. If I go into a split, who knows if I'll come back up, you know?"

“Here, I want to look like a beast. I just want to look as scary as possible. I don't want to look pretty and all nice and dolled up. For what? I'm going to get dirty and sweaty. The only thing—my hair has to be slick.”

                   “I bring the light—and the joy.”

In 2013, after arriving in Istanbul and being greeted by a member of the press, Jankovic replied, “I bring the light.” Then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, “and the joy.”

And she did. Whether arguing with the umpire (which she did with relish), looking across the net from her bottom-down position on the court, making the media laugh until tears came, or hitting a laser-sharp backhand winner down the line, JJ made everything more exciting, more whimsical, more colorful. Sometimes she made things downright bizarre. She could find the humorous angle in anything, and she was always able to laugh at herself.

I was very fortunate to interview Jankovic in Charleston in April. She was there to attend the tournament’s 50th anniversary celebration, and she talked with me about motherhood, and about her memories of Charleston and all the good times she had there.

I consider JJ an international treasure, and one of the most wonderful things to ever happen to professional tennis. She brought the light and the joy—and so much more.

photo by Daniel Ward


colt13 said...

The raspy voiced princess has no filter. Makes for a great interview.

Diane said...

One of her many sterling qualities. :)