Two past Volvo Car Open champions, Samantha Stosur (’10) and Jelena Jankovic (’07), play tonight. It’s the tenth time they’ll play one another – but the first in nearly four years. For what it’s worth, Jankovic has won seven of their prior nine meetings.
Each now is well past 30, Stosur having turned 33 on March 30, Jankovic 32 on the last day of February. Each has once flirted with greatness, Stosur winning the 2011 US Open, Jankovic finishing 2008 ranked number one in the world. Of course, each of their careers is closer to midnight than morning – Stosur now ranked 17, Jankovic 53.
Whenever tennis players reach this stage, I often hear these questions: Why is she still playing? Does she need the money? Does she really think she can win a Slam? Added to the queries: It’s embarrassing to see her play now.
My counter: embarrassing to whom?
On a team sport, if you’re not pulling your weight any more, you are hindering the productivity of others. But in an individual sport, who is being hurt? Or is the hesistancy to witness decline an avoidance of mortality? After all, if even a great athlete slides down the hill, what does that say about us mortals?
Stosur and Jankovic have had superb careers. If likely jaded and weary, each remains fit and, hopefully, eager to compete. Like most of us, they will also leave complicated legacies. Stosur soared when she won that US Open, but in the 21 majors since, has only reached two Grand Slam semis. Jankovic never claimed a Slam singles title, her best effort a run to the ’08 US Open final.
Interestingly, their strengths and weaknesses form a nearly perfect player. Stosur’s assets include a superb serve, big forehand and nimble volleys. But she’s also shown sloppy footwork, a lackluster backhand and up-and-down concentration. Jankovic’s big gun has long been her backhand, aided by her own brand of tenacity, hindered by a mediocre serve and many a point where she’s scarcely aggressive.
Might each have changed her attitude? Or is competitive temperament strictly as genetic as eye color? What might have happened had each invested in making significant technical improvements – Stosur’s backhand, Jankovic with the serve? Or is it naïve to think that elite players, in the arena week after week, can truly upgrade their strokes? Perhaps – thought their elder, 35-year-old Roger Federer, he of the improved backhand, might beg to differ.