As the US Open Series begins, I want to call attention to the mysterious and silent disappearance of a WTA veteran and former US Open Finalist, Jelena Jankovic, from the Tour.
Eleven years ago, the Serbian star was at the height of her career. She reached the 2008 US Open final–losing to Serena Williams in a highly competitive and entertaining two-setter. A couple of months later she secured Year-End No. 1.
Unlike her contemporaries Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, Jelena never wilted from the extra attention that came with reaching the summit of the sport. In fact, Jelena thirsted for the show courts, commercial deals, and packed press rooms; she lived for the limelight.
While she remained in the game’s upper echelon for the next two subsequent seasons, her all-around consistency never put her in the position to vie for Grand Slam glory again.
Joining the notorious club of “Slamless World No. 1s”, many tennis experts chalked up Jelena’s deficits to her defensive-oriented game. Compared to fellow ‘Slamless No.1’, Caroline Wozniacki, who spent the better part of a decade refusing to adjust her game, Jelena made adjustments almost immediately. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Jelena gained sixteen pounds of muscle (yes–sixteen) in order to imbue more power into her relatively week serve and trademark down-the-line shots. However, the extra bulk proved to work to her detriment, hampering her agility so significantly that she failed to make a deep run at a Slam again until 2010.
If anything, her hamartia (or fatal flaw) proved to be her mentality. Too often Jelena would take herself out of matches by berating her box or chastising the umpire. These problems became obvious when she suffered a two-season slide in 2011. When she reemerged in 2013, her melodramatic nature remained. Unsurprisingly, that season would be her last Top 10 finish.
It is interesting to note that when Jelena began her decent in 2014, a mini-rivalry emerged between her and a player who carried similar critiques from tennis pundits: Simona Halep. A future “Slamless No. 1”. Simona too was criticized for her passive tendencies and for headcase nature. When the pair faced off five times between 2013 and 2015, it was the Romanian who emerged victorious on every occasion. While it may not have been apparent at the time, this quintet of matchups signified the divergent journies these two players would embark upon. While Simona has famously exorcised her mental demons and gone on to win not one, but two Grand Slam singles titles, Jelena has faded into obscurity.
In 2018, after 56 consecutive appearances in Grand Slams (the third-longest streak in the WTA record books and sixth-longest streak across both tours), Jelena announced that she’d be skipping Melbourne in order to rehab a back injury. Moreover, after going winless since July of 2017, she admitted that she had been contemplating retirement.
After undergoing an eye procedure later that year, Jelena seemed poised to formalize these plans. She sent an invitation to journalists to a press conference in Rome–the site of her two most notable championships. In fact, her close friend and sometimes double partner, Andrea Petkovic, alluded to the announcement in a farewell message recorded in Charleston (on a side note: if you haven’t viewed their annual Charleston media day interviews, I highly suggest taking a peek–they’ll leave you in stitches). However, in the end, the event was called off, seemingly when the announcement of hometown darling, Roberta Vinci, announced that the tournament would be the site of her retirement (remember, Jelena is not one to be upstaged.)
Since, the former World No. 1 has vanished without a trace. The only mentions of her in the news have been the sale of her Rancho Santa Fe mansion for $13.5 million.
However, after going radio silent, the former World No. 1 has reemerged on social media, posting photos and videos from a mysterious vacation— offering no indication of any preparation for a return to the WTA Tour.
As it stands, Jelena is one of two active players (without the surname Williams) who hold at least four wins over Serena. Additionally, she’s one of six active players who have ever claimed Year-End No. 1. However, she is also the only Year-End No. 1 without a Slam.
Whatever the outcome may, given her tenacity & outspoken nature, the story of Jelena Jankovic deserves a louder ending than one that fades into obscurity within the annals of Tennis History.