Can Djokovic inspire countrywomen?

If you were Ana Ivanovic or Jelena Jankovic these days, you might be tempted to call your Serbian countryman Novak Djokovic and tell him, "Back off, Nole. You're kind of making us look bad here."

A little background is in order here: The year 2007 was the Serbian summer, when all three players from that relatively small nation, where tennis never before made a bright blip on the radar, crashed the pro tour. They enchanted tennis fans worldwide, for various reasons including their success, styles of play and communicable enthusiasm.

The high-water mark in this unlikely debut was the French Open, where all three were semifinalists; Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal and on the WTA side Ivanovic beat Jankovic before Justine Henin ended her run. That Ivanovic went the furthest in that breakout tournament is, in retrospect, ironic.

But let's get back to the present. Djokovic has been tearing up the tour this year (he's presently 20-0, the best start for an ATP pro in 30 years), and he's driving hard toward the top. But what he's done best in the long term is bide his time while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal held the tour in an iron-fisted grip, remaining with striking distance of both men from a comfortable sinecure. Aside from a brief spell during mid-2009, when Djokovic dropped to No. 4, he's been solidly entrenched at No. 3 since the fall of 2007 -- long before his 21st birthday.

By contrast, the two Serbian women have struggled. Jankovic hasn't fallen out of the top 10 since a month after she entered it in January of 2007. But she hasn't developed into nearly the player that some pundits expected. A superb athlete, it turns out she had something that could not be identified at the time -- the self-subversive gene that prevents so many players from fully realizing their potential.

That's a fairly harsh judgment to pass on a former No. 1 player. But Jankovic found a way to earn the No. 1 ranking (and all the material and public-relations rewards that go with it) while failing to complete the single most task every great player strives for: to win at least one win Grand Slam event. In fact, she's only made one major final (U.S. Open 2008). And while there's no shame in losing to Serena Williams (that effort did propel her to the year-end No. 1 ranking), Jankovic hasn't played as well since.

At 26, Jankovic still has time. But the now-familiar pattern of inconsistency is emerging again. Jankovic played poorly when it most counted so far this year, down in Australia. She's done somewhat better since then.

Ivanovic is almost two years younger than Jankovic, and while her highs have been higher (another former No. 1, Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008), her lows have been lower. Since she hit No. 1 in June of 2008, she's fallen as low as 62 (that's no typo), but has slowly -- and painfully -- fought her way back. This week, she's inside the top 20 again.

It's too late for the example set by Djokovic to rub off on the two struggling women, but perhaps he'll inspire them to rebound and fulfill the implied promises of 2007.