Serbia’s men hold the Davis Cup and it was not so long ago that their women were also threatening to rule the world. Ana Ivanovic, French Open champion in 2008 and three times a Grand Slam finalist, and Jelena Jankovic, beaten in the US Open final the same year, both had spells on top of the world rankings. After two rounds of this year’s Australian Open, however, both are on their way home.
Following Ivanovic’s first-round exit, Jankovic fell at the second hurdle here today, losing 7-6, 6-3 to Peng Shuai, who maintained China’s excellent recent record at a tournament now billed as “The Grand Slam of the Asia/Pacific”. Jankovic, the first top 10 seed to fall at the year’s opening Grand Slam event, blamed poor shot selection for her defeat, but in truth the 2008 semi-finalist was outplayed in almost every department.
Jankovic had a reputation for consistency, having reached the semi-finals or better at five out of nine Grand Slam tournaments beginning with the 2006 US Open, but in recent times the only constant in her game has been the regularity with which she has been losing matches. Having ended last year with five successive defeats, today’s setback followed a first-round exit in Sydney last week. In her last nine Grand Slam tournaments Jankovic has failed to go beyond the fourth round only once.
After a chilly and often gloomy start to the tournament, blue skies and rising temperatures brought conditions back to what the players usually expect at Melbourne Park. Jankovic quickly warmed to her task and led 4-1 in the first set, only to lose her way.
The 25-year-old Serb eventually forced a first set tie-break by breaking Peng’s serve for the third time, but she was unable to maintain her level thereafter. Peng, who only narrowly beat the British teenager Heather Watson in Auckland a fortnight ago, won the tie-break 7-3 and went on to take command of the second set by breaking in the sixth game. Jankovic racked up 39 unforced errors.
“I was leading 4?1 and had everything under my control,” Jankovic said afterwards. “I was playing pretty well. But then I just had some loose errors and she played some good points. Little by little she was gaining momentum and I started completely going down, especially in that tie-breaker.”
The major consolation for Jankovic is that she feels free of the physical problems that have dogged her over the last two years, including an ankle injury at the end of last year. She also had eye surgery during the off season.
“It’s really important for me now that I'm healthy, that I can really compete out there,” she said. “Now I just have to continue to work hard and work on my game and really build on my confidence. Hopefully I will get more matches in the future and just keep getting better.
“I really feel good physically. I'm healthy. I can really be on the court and enjoy myself out there. It's the beginning of the season, only my third match of the year. I'm still rusty. I just have to get match tough again and play right in the important times of the match. That was the case today. I just made a wrong selection of shots at important moments of the match, and that cost me. At the end my opponent took her opportunities.”
Peng, who was all smiles at the end, now plays Japan’s Ayumi Morita, who beat Caroline Garcia, of France, 6-4, 6-4. Her fellow countrywoman, Li Na, a semi-finalist here last year, is also through to the third round, though Zheng Jie, who also reached the last four 12 months ago, pulled out of the tournament with a wrist injury.
Kim Clijsters, the favourite to win the title here, followed up her 6-0, 6-0 win over Dinara Safina with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-3 defeat of Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat Venus Williams at this stage of the tournament two years ago..
”She’s a tough player,” Clijsters said. “She's tricky. The balls bounced so differently compared with my first round. “I was just happy with the way that I played. I tried to play both sides of the court, tried to be aggressive and dictate the points - and it worked.”
Clijsters’ previous best performance here was a run to the final in 2004. The 27-year-old Belgian has also made the semi-finals on four other occasions, though she suffered one of her worst losses on her return to Melbourne Park 12 months ago after an absence of three years, losing 6-0, 6-1 to Nadia Petrova in the third round. It was her heaviest loss in a Grand Slam tournament.
The world No 3 said she had put the defeat behind here. “I don't think I've ever played a match like that, so it was very easy in a way to forget about it,” she said.
Clijsters now plays Alize Cornet, who beat the No 26 seed, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, of Spain, 7-5, 6-1. Cornet reached No 11 in the world rankings two years ago but had a poor 2010, going out in the first round of all four Grand Slam tournaments. The 20-year-old Frenchwoman last reached the third round of a Grand Slam event here two years ago.