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11 December 2023

Serb star's secret to success

Jankovic, 23, says she has plenty of time to achieve her goal of winning a Grand Slam. (GETTY IMAGES)

By Gary Meenaghan

When world No3 Jelena Jankovic returns to Belgrade between tennis tournaments she often finds her training regime to be more slam dunk than Grand Slam.

Such is the slipshod situation in her native Serbia, the 23-year-old is forced to prepare for events on a court that also plays home to a couple of basketball nets and a set of football goals.

The conditions, however, are unlikely to provoke protests from the former world No1. In fact, she says, the state of affairs is more stimulating than stifling.

"In Serbia, we don't have financial backing and that's not a good thing when you are playing tennis," says Jankovic, who exited this week's WTA Dubai Tennis Championships in the third round after a surprise defeat to Estonian Kaia Kanepi. "Tennis is a sport for the wealthy and without having money, it is difficult because you need to have the best facilities and best equipment to be the best.

"But it is this that makes you hungry. When you know that nothing was given to you and you know that you don't have the best courts to play on and you don't have the best shoes… you are willing to work harder to prove yourself and make it in this world.

"That's why I believe the Eastern European players are big fighters and very strong players mentally and physically – because they want it more."

Indeed, eight out of the top 10 ranked women on the WTA Tour are from Eastern Europe; the two exceptions being the Williams sisters [See box-out].

However, Venus and Serena had a similarly tough upbringing with father Richard Williams relocating his family from middle-class Michigan to the notoriously dangerous Compton area of California when the sisters were still infants. "I wanted [them] to live in the worst ghetto in the world so they could see all the bad that could happen if you don't get an education," he later explained.

Jankovic may not have been raised in the same area code that gave birth to "Gangsta Rap", but she undoubtedly still knows how important it is to "Express Yourself" in the classroom. The US Open finalist is in the second year of a media management, economics and business course at Belgrade's Megatrend University.

And while her studies have been put on hold as she adds to the $7 million (Dh25.7m) worth of career earnings gleaned from eight years on the WTA circuit, she is also keen to give back to her homeland.

"One good thing about Serbia is that younger generations are picking up racquets because they have their idols and somebody to inspire them and motivate them to become great players.

"When we were growing up we never had anybody to look at and try to learn from and get that inspiration. We always had to do it ourselves because we don't come from a wealthy country.

"Maybe when I stop playing, I will open a club. But I don't know, I haven't thought about it. Just now I can say whatever, but things like that require time and dedication. I am not in that position; I am still playing, am focused on my career and have my goals."

One of those goals is undoubtedly to win her first Major having reached the final last year at Flushing Meadows ("I came very close to winning my first Grand Slam, but I have time. I don't want to put pressure on myself"). Another goal is to reclaim her position at the top of the world rankings after being dethroned by Serena Williams at the Australian Open earlier this month ("I liked being No1 in the world, it is everybody's dream and allows you to go out and enjoy your tennis"). Her final goal, she achieved earlier this month back home in Belgrade.

Jankovic played in the Fed Cup alongside compatriot Ana Ivanovic and it was the first time the duo had represented their country on home soil.

Cue nervous stomachs before taking to the court, record attendances during the match, and a 4-1 demolition of Japan that safely sees Serbia progress to the World Group play-offs for the first time.

"The Fed Cup was an amazing experience and something I will never forget," says Jankovic. "Coming from Serbia and playing with Serbia for the first time in front of a full house, with people singing your name and supporting you and cheering you on… it's something special and awesome.

"To play in front of your family and friends, winning against Japan and then celebrating with my team-mates was amazing. So I hope that, in the future, we will have many more opportunities to play at home."

The record turnout did not surprise Jankovic, who captained her Fed Cup team. Tennis, she says, is now the most popular sport in Serbia and playing in team events such as this and the men's equivalent, the Davis Cup, helps to promote the sport and build a solid, dedicated fanbase.

Perhaps, in time, Serbia's young footballers and basketball players will be forced to play their respective games on tennis courts, rather than the other way around.

Ram issued Visa to compete in Dubai

An entry permit has been issued to Israeli tennis player Andy Ram to take part in next week's ATP Dubai Tennis Championships, Ambassador Sultan Al Qertasi, the Director of the Consular Affairs Department of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement issued to Emirates News Agency, WAM, last night.

"The relevant Government department has issued a special entry permit to allow the tennis player Mr Andy Ram to enter the country to take part in next week's international tennis tournament being held in Dubai," the statement read.

"The decision to issue the permit is in line with the UAE's commitment to a policy of permitting any individual to take part in international sports, cultural and economic events or activities being held in the country, without any limitation being placed on participation by citizens of any member country of the United Nations," said Al Qertasi.

"This is a well-established policy and has no political implications. Nor does this decision indicate any form of normalisation of relations with countries with whom the United Arab Emirates does not have diplomatic relations," the statement concluded.

Top 10 by Country

More than 40 of the WTA top 100 are native to Eastern Europe, with Russia boasting the most representatives.

1. Russia (14 players)

2. France (11)

3. Czech Republic (8)

4. Spain (5)

=. Italy (5)

5. Slovakia (4)

=. USA (4)

6. Germany, Belarus, China, Austria, Ukraine, Romania, Australia, Germany (3)