Sometimes I wonder if tennis stars are just playing us when they claim to be ill. I’m not accusing them all of being a bunch of liars and fakers but you have to wonder sometimes about some of these injuries. How real are they? Are they just ploys, attempts at playing possum - you know, getting your opponents to believe that you’re down and out so that they might relax in their preparations to face you. How to determine the fakers from the truth-tellers? Where’s Flava Flav when I need him?
These were my thoughts when I read reports that Jelena Jankovic is now claiming illness. After a couple of weeks of training like a monster in Mexico, Ms. Jankovic showed up in Hong Kong looking lackluster and playing as if her heart was not in it. It was just a team exhibition match for which, as the #1 player, she would have been exceedingly well paid, regardless of outcome. So it mattered little that she lost 6-2 6-2 to Venus.
After rolling over and playing dead against Venus, Ms. Jankovic was expected to face China’s Zheng Jie in a match between losing semifinalists. Instead she showed up on court in a track suit and announced to the crowd that she was not feeling well and that she had taken medication. In the subsequent press interview - which is required even if one is at death’s door - she told interviewers that Hong Kong is a long way away and that the trip itself was hard on her weakened system. Let me quote her: “My immune system is down as well because I’ve been training very, very hard. I reached my limit. It’s easy to get sick, especially being surrounded by many people and a change of climate, change of time zone and everything.”
So why don’t I believe her? Am I just a heartless bitch for saying that this sounds to me like a load of BS and that she will show up as healthy as a horse to the Australian Open and proceed to make a valiant attempt to win her first Slam? After all, it is kind of embarrassing to be the Slamless # 1 player in the world. She needs to correct that, stat.
News reports coming out of far-flung Hong Kong describe Jankovic as appearing sluggish, and note that her serves lacked pace and her ground strokes seemed erratic. I call that a dramatic performance of the highest order. Give the woman a Critic’s Choice Award.
And just in case someone in the press corps had missed the very obvious messages of her desultory body language, Ms. Jankovic offered to the press the following overstatement of her current condition: “It’s obvious I feel slow and I have no reactions” OK Jelena, we get it. You’re not feeling well. Message received, we swear.
Now let me be fair to Ms. Jankovic. It is definitely possible for a sports person to over train their bodies to the point of illness. There is no better example of this than Justine Henin who got so caught up in her training regimen that she cut short her honeymoon to return to the gym. I think that poor Mr. Hardenne got to hold her in his arms for all of two days, if that. I wonder if she regrets that now?
Certainly she came to regret the stress that she put on her petite body as she tried to bulk and muscle up to face Kuznetsova, Mauresmo, the Williams Sisters, Sharapova, and other on-court behemoths. In the end, Henin apparently overdid it. She ran her body down to the ground and ended up acquiring a mysterious virus that it took her months to shake.
In other words, I am not at all intending to minimize the effects of overtraining. Dr. Michael Kellman, a German sports performance specialist, notes that the physical effects of overtraining include impaired performance, vulnerability to injuries, loss of appetite, weight loss, disturbed sleep, an increased susceptibility to illness, an elevated resting heart rate and possibly hormonal changes. And Dr. Declan Connolly, director of the University of Vermont's Human Performance Laboratory, observes that as a result of overtraining, instead of just wanting to slow down or take a few days off, a sports player may feel like they want to quit altogether. Henin is living proof of the accuracy of these observations.
But training for a couple of weeks in Mexico does not compare with the brutal and prolonged regimen to which Justine Henin submitted her diminutive body. Certainly the few weeks she spent in Mexico did not stop Jelena from getting her party groove on with new boyfriend Mladjan Janović over New Year’s Eve.
So for now I’m not holding my breath. I think that Drama Queen will be just fine. I don’t for a second believe reports that she is going into the Aussie Open without match preparation. That’s what private tennis courts and paid practice partners are for. And in a week, she will show up in Melbourne, eyelashes loaded with mascara, smiling from ear to ear as she slides and splits her way into some serious wins. Feel free to call me out if I’m wrong.