January 9, 2007

Jelena Janković

(info about Jelena Janković)

A Serbian flavour on the tennis court

Thomas Kieller

Jelena Janković: Athletic, talented and with an entrancing style.

Athletic, talented and with an entrancing style, Jelena imposes herself on the tennis courts. In the spectators’ boxes, the eyes turn more and more towards this young woman. The public appreciates her mostly for her passion. Jelena does not hide her Slavonic features. Emotional sometimes but very determined, she gives herself in the matches leaving nothing behind. Two steps away from being in the world top 10, she continues her progress. The Serbian player is not satisfied by her past victories in Dubai and Budapest only. To the contrary, her good results in 2006 demonstrate that she can beat the best players in the world and that she adores surmounting new challenges. Of course, a victory at one of the four major tournaments is still a far away objective. Nevertheless, it is most probable that one day Jelena will realize what many players dream off, meaning winning a Grand Slam tournament. Will it be the one in Paris, London, New York or Melbourne? Only time will tell like Jelena1 says it so well!

The interview took place on November 1, 2006 at 20:50 in the press conference room of the Challenge Bell tennis tournament of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour which was held in one of the buildings of the University Laval in Quebec City, Canada.

Prelude – In front of the press conference room, the journalists and the reporters are waiting for Jelena’s arrival who defeated easily the Venezuelan Milagros Sequra by the score of 6-1, 6-3. During this pause, a Serbian journalist gives to Jacques Hérisset, general director of the Challenge Bell tournament, the new Serbian flag in force since June 8, 2006 in order that it can be clearly seen instead of the old flag which was suspended by error among the flags of Canada, United-States, Russia and France. Around 20h30, Jelena arrives to the press conference room relaxed. Sitting down comfortably in an armchair, she answers first the questions asked in turn by four journalists before conversing with me about sport and her country, Serbia, during thirty minutes.

Training and preparation of a tennis player

Thomas Kieller: You are a professional since 2001 and you already had your share of injuries which forced you to withdraw from matches. I’m talking about back injuries, shoulder injuries, ankle sprains, thigh strains, abductor strains and even once you withdrew from a match because of cramps. You have played in the 2005-2006 season at least 70 single matches and many others in doubles. To play that much tennis at that level is it tough for the body?

Jelena Janković: Yes, it’s very tough for the body when you play so many matches and also it’s very dangerous. You can get injured easily because your body gets so tired. So, you have to stretch a lot and you have to do some running after the match to get the lactic acid out of your muscles, have some massages and you have to take good care of your body in order to stay healthy.

Thomas: The importance of fitness runs in your family. Does your brother Marko, who is a fitness coach, give you some tips about your physical condition?

Jelena: He’s helping me a little bit but he’s also studying at the university. So, he is kind of doing his own work but he’s helping me sometimes.

Thomas: During the season, what kind of exercises do you do for your physical condition (jogging, workout in a gym or on the tennis court)?

Jelena: Actually, I’m not the kind of player who likes to do a lot of weights in the gym. It makes me feel kind of tight and heavy. I prefer to work with very light weights and do many repetitions or do exercises without weights. I like doing a curl workout for my abs and other exercises for my back. This is a very important area to keep strong because from there everything goes. Also, I like to run. Depending on what I am doing, when I have matches or when I am practicing, I do long runs or sprints. So, I do all kinds of exercises to stay fit.

Thomas: And what kind of training do you do for the technical aspects of the game?

Jelena: I just practice when I’m in the tournament and I try to hit as many cross courts down the line as possible. I try to have precise shots and feel comfortable on the court. That’s my main goal. So, when I play my match, I know what I am doing and I feel the ball really well.

Thomas: During a year, is there some more intense period of training?

Jelena: After the season which ends for me with the tournament in Quebec, Canada, I’m going for a two week vacation and then I will have a more intense training to prepare well for the next season. I will probably do more hours of training than usual. I do all of that because everything else will be easier.

Thomas: In football, American football and in hockey, during the training period before the season starts, the players work very hard. Some of them even work their fitness in the off season. Physical condition is very important. In tennis, there are examples of players who gave special attention to their fitness like Andre Agassi. He retired at 36 years old probably because he did not neglect his health and form. One of the best examples of that is the Austrian Thomas Muster. He did not have extraordinary tennis talent but he pushed himself very hard concerning his physical condition. He became number 1 in 1996. Do you think that in tennis in general men or women athletes focus more on the technical aspects of the game rather than on the physical condition?

Jelena (laughs): I think it is a personal decision. Some players like to work five, six or eight hours a day. I’m a player who likes to work two or three hours a day because I don’t like to practice so much. I like a quality workout not quantity workout

Thomas: Tennis can be physically demanding. Is there a type of court which is more demanding physically to play on?

Jelena: I think hard court may be the worst for your body because it’s so hard for your back and for your knees. Grass is nice to play because it’s soft and perhaps you don’t have problems with the knees or certain joints. For me, it’s the hard court which is the worst.

Thomas: Besides tennis, do you enjoy other sports or physical activities?

Jelena (tells on a happy note): I like to play basketball. Also, when I am in Florida, United States where I have an apartment I like to swim and for fun I like to play golf.

Serbian background

Thomas: Around 1995 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was it difficult to have good tennis training conditions?

Jelena: We still have problems. For example in Serbia, we don’t have hard court. So, when we have a tournament on hard court, I am practicing on a carpet. It’s a big difference. It’s not good to prepare on such a court. Hopefully, they will try to make some centers with different kinds of courts: hard court and clay court. So, it will be easier for the Serbian players to improve their game and also to have more newcomers.

Thomas: So if I understand well, the conditions in Serbia are not better than in 1995!

Jelena: I think it’s the same. The worst is in winter. For example, there are three courts which are covered with a rubber structure. It’s a bit difficult to explain. From outside, it looks like a balloon. Like I said, you have three courts under there and it’s full of players. They don’t have much time to practice and it’s so cold. There is no good heating. It’s tough! You can get sick. It’s how it is…

Thomas: When did you leave for Florida in order to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy?

Jelena: I think I was almost 13 years old. Twelve or thirteen, I’m not sure.

Thomas: Now, you live in Bradenton (Florida), United States. First of all, why are there so many players who reside in Florida? What is so attractive about it, the weather?

Jelena (laughs): Yes, the most attractive is the weather because you can practice there all year long. You can play outside and you don’t have to go indoors. The facilities are good and you have all kind of courts. You have a good fitness center where I am training at the academy. You have everything that you need to prepare well for the tournaments and to be quite ready.

Thomas: It is known that United States welcomes people of different countries. Was it easy or difficult to integrate yourself in the North American lifestyle? Was there a cultural shock?

Jelena: At the beginning, it was a little bit different especially as a young girl when I came there because I did not even speak English. I did not know anything and it was also difficult for me to be away from the family. I had to adapt to the people and to the new environment. It was a big difference. It was tough. But I think I got used to it and as the time goes on you learn more about the culture and the people. You just adjust and you become the same as them.

Thomas (surprised): You were alone. Your family was not with you?

Jelena: I was almost all the time alone. For example, my mother was staying with me for a month and than she was going back home. I was just staying alone there with the other kids. It was kind of tough especially since I did not speak English. I did not know what I needed to do particularly when I was going to school. I could not do my homework. When you have a difficulty, there is nobody to help you. So, you learn it the hard way. You learn to do everything by yourself. However, it’s a good learning experience; it makes you more independent and stronger as a person. You know how to do everything by yourself so you don’t have to depend on your parents or somebody else to do it for you.

Thomas: On another subject, you were part of the Serbian Fed Cup team from 2001 to 2005. You were the only player of your delegation, Serbia and Montenegro, to play tennis at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. This is something special. Are you proud to represent your country which is now Serbia?

Jelena: Yes, I am proud of my country. I’m Serbian and I play for this country. I try to represent that country under the best possible light. I think the athletes are the best ambassadors for their country. It’s good to promote it especially when it’s in a good way. I think that Serbia is mostly known for the wars and for those bad times, but I think the athletes can bring a better image of my country. When you hear next time about Serbia, may be you will think of a good tennis player or a good basketball player.

Thomas: In 2006, there was a rupture between Serbia and Montenegro. You were born in Belgrade, which is now Serbia. Your mother was born also in Serbia. However, your father Veselin was born in Montenegro. How do you feel about that separation?

Jelena: You know, it was not my decision that Serbia and Montenegro separated. The government and the people, they have decided. I’m not so much involved in the politics and I don’t like to know anything about it. I would prefer that they had stayed together especially since my dad is from Montenegro and my mother is from Serbia, but I live in Serbia and I choose to play for Serbia. At the beginning, the journalists were asking "who are you going to play for" and things like that, but I choose to play for Serbia and now I’m just Serbian.

Thomas: I’m sure you have talked about that subject with your father. What do you think are his feelings about the independence of Montenegro?

Jelena: I don’t know. I have not talked to him about this. I don’t know how he feels. However, it was a family decision for who I was going to play.

Thomas: As a professional tennis player, you travel a lot around the world and you can see different cultures. That gives you a perspective on what has happened back home in Serbia. To see the world is it something that you enjoy a lot?

Jelena: Of course. If I was not a tennis player, I would not have been able to travel so much, learn about the new cultures, meet different kinds of people and see so many different cities. I have almost been all over the world. There are only a couple of places that I haven’t actually been to. As a 21 years old, I have seen a lot and I am really grateful that I have this kind of job so I can see the world, learn new things and have many good experiences.

Thomas: On the tennis circuit, you mix with players of different nationalities. Do you enjoy those moments and do you learn about different cultures?

Jelena: We talk to each other. We talk about what we do on special occasions. For example, Christmas in Serbia is on January 7 rather than December 25 like in America. So, we talk about our differences and it’s good to learn about it. You can always have good knowledge from each other.

Next season and women tennis

Thomas: Since 2003, it‘s possible to see that you have improved tremendously in the major tournaments, meaning in Australia, in France, in England and in United States. For 2007, what are your objectives?

Jelena: I would like to keep going. My main goal is to reach my full potential and how much that is we will see. If I reach my full potential I will than be happy. Until then if I don’t reach that I’m not happy. I will try and I will always improve my game everyday. Work on myself and things I need to improve because nobody is perfect. You can always get better. I want to keep going forward. Obviously I would like to win a Grand Slam tournament. But now, my goal is to be in the top 10. I am currently 12th. I don’t want to make big goals because you never know what tomorrow will bring. I can get injured, get sick or whatever. I had a virus in October 2005 and it was difficult to come back. I want to stay in the present and think day by day and what time brings it brings. Only God knows.

Thomas: Tell me, why a spectator should go see a women tennis match?

Jelena: I think women tennis is a lot of fun to watch. You can watch a lot of exciting tennis. You can see many different personalities and you can see girls in tennis skirts. Different outfits, it can be interesting for the spectators. (Jelena laughs). You know, I’m not a spectator and I don’t watch the game from that prospect.

Thomas: Well done, Jelena.

1. For the purpose of this article, Jelena became no. 1 of the WTA ranking on August 11, 2008.