The take off.
Serb and volley
June 24, 2007
Barry Flatman, tennis correspondent
One is blonde, the other is raven-haired. Both are photogenic and happy to exploit the fact. One takes her time over every serve, repeatedly going through the same meticulous routine, the other bounces the ball once before crashing it into play. One seldom returns to the country of her birth and has become consumed with life in America. The other cares passionately about her homeland and sees herself as an ambassador. One maintains a game-face that at best could be described as stern and, on more arduous points, becomes distinctly tortured. Barely controlled glee best personifies the expression the other wears when things are going well; when they are not, she resembles a little girl lost.
This is not just modern women’s tennis but big time business. Image rights abound, glamour is paramount, prospective endorsements stockpiled. This is the sort of rivalry that convinces the powerbrokers of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour that the sport’s appeal is assured well into the next decade. A year ago, Maria Sharapova was the best-known face in women’s sport and, competitively, a class above Ana Ivanovic, who was on the periphery of the big time – promising, attractive and talented but some way short of the game’s top level. All that changed in the space of two sets in the French Open semi-final when the teenage Serb triumphed 6-2 6-1 over the California-based Russian.
Minutes later, a man of obvious affluence was celebrating on the players’ terrace at Roland Garros. “This is the one we have been waiting for, this is the one we have been telling you about,” he insisted. “What an important victory for the future of women’s tennis. Nike’s princess was completely outplayed by the girl in adidas and now Ana will become just as big a star.”
This wasn’t just about winning a tennis match but striking a blow in what used to be called the “sneaker-wars”. Dan Holzman, the Swiss businessman who is the co-owner of a $450m company specialising in vitamin products, first spotted Ivanovic’s potential, both in tennis talent and marketability, when she was just 13. In the years that followed, he invested in her development, paying her expenses and ensuring she got the best in terms of coaching and training.
“I saw she was a great talent, but 99% of my reasoning was that Ana is a humble, modest, well-educated girl with caring parents,” explained Holzman, who now introduces himself as Ivanovic’s manager. “She had the talent to succeed but not the opportunity so I decided to help. Nearly six years on, she is still the same delightful person but now the world is taking notice. And she is the perfect counterpoint to Maria Sharapova.”
Fast-forward a week to Her-togenbosch in Holland and the weather is miserable. Rainy Mondays put a damper on most moods, but fail to darken the most engaging smile in tennis.
Sufficient time had passed to digest the memory of a case of stage fright against Justine Henin, with the tennis world looking on during the French Open final. In the interim, 50,000 compatriots in her home city of Belgrade lauded Ivanovic as a heroine alongside compatriots Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic, who both reached the semi-finals.
Wimbledon, and the chance to underline her growing reputation, is a week away and Ivanovic exudes the sort of excitement that suggests she can hardly wait. She is animated, open and affable. Perhaps it has something to do with those childhood tennis sessions in a drained indoor swimming pool when Nato bombs weren’t falling, but she is revelling in the attention afforded to her.
“People tell me I’m a star now but I find that difficult to believe,” she says. “What I have achieved makes no reason to change my personality and how I view other people.” And therein lies a major part of Ivanovic’s mission. She is determined to improve the perception of a country that was once again tainted by the hostile and allegedly racist behaviour of Serbia’s under-21 footballers and their supporters when they played England in Nijmegen.
Ivanovic has bad memories of her earliest days on the circuit. “Everyone seemed to think Serbians were bad people and I never felt I was welcome,” she remembered. “It was hard for us. At every airport, immigration and passport control always seemed to take half an hour longer for us than the other players. We had to explain what we were doing going into whatever country. There was so much trouble over visas. I was very young, but quickly realised people did not have a good opinion of us.
“I didn’t understand. Now I know but it is wrong to judge somebody because of where they come from. When I go home I see a change for the better in our country and Novak, Jelena and I hope our results will continue that change. We try to present the country and its people in a way people will like.”
There is an appreciation of good fortune that is not always apparent in players of other nationalities but Ivanovic concedes Serbs are natural fighters when it comes to being competitive and all three players share the same tough mentality. Such fortitude deserted her in her hour of need against Henin.
In outplaying Sharapova, as well as beating third seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ivanovic produced some of the most powerfully accurate serving seen in women’s tennis. Things went downhill thereafter but even a recollection of the final affords a giggle. “Now it’s funny, but it wasn’t at the time,” she says. “I was so uptight I could not bounce the ball, then I got stressed going for other shots. I experienced something like that a couple of years ago. I was playing the last round of qualifying in what hopefully would be my first ever tier one event in Zurich. I so wanted to win and was thinking more about the result than how I was playing and that made me very tense. I got through but did not seem to learn a lesson from that match. Hopefully the French final will be different. Justine was so clever and she knew how to use my problems to her advantage.”
Many believe Ivanovic, Wimbledon’s sixth seed and the only teenager in the world top 10, will be an even more potent force on grass. She has worked hard on her serve under the occasional guidance of Sven Groeneveld, the Dutch coach who has worked with Mary Pierce, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Greg Rusedski.
Before arriving in Holland, she spent time honing her fitness at the Casal-Sanchez Academy in Barcelona, where Andy Mur-ray spent a few formative years, and believes she will reap the dividends. Groeneveld agrees. “I see so many things in Ana’s game that have potential but she is still in the developmental stage,” he said. “We hope to find a way to maximise what she has, which is big shots and big weapons. Coming into Wimbledon, we will be working on allying her serve to stronger volleys.”
A quarter-final loss to Daniela Hantuchova in ’s-Hertogen-bosch allowed Ivanovic more time to acclimatise at Wimbledon where she will face 137th-ranked Hungarian Melinda Czink in the opening round. Defending champion Amelie Mauresmo potentially awaits in the quarter-finals and a possible rematch against Sharapova in the last four looms.
Holzman has been fending off overtures from the game’s predominant management groups IMG, Octagon and SFX Sports, who lament missing out on a player who is set to become one of the biggest commercial earn-ers in tennis. “They have been quite aggressive and if ultimately they can do a better job for Ana than me, I won’t stand in her way. But I have been reluctant to sign her up to many long-term endorsement deals because the initial offers were not too big and it was clear more lucrative ones were in the near future.
“Currently there is adidas, a racket deal with Wilson and a contract with the same Coty cosmetic company that has contracts with the Beckhams and Jen-nifer Lopez. But there are five or six offers on the table. I am a businessman and I see what has happened with Sharapova. I have no problems with what IMG have done for her, in fact it helped the industry so much in terms of marketability. Before that, there was Anna Kournikova, who was a phenomenon, and there could be no limit to what Ana might financially achieve.”
Being described as “the dark-haired Sharapova” does not sit easily with Ivanovic. She says she is content to let Holzman take care of her commercial activities and doesn’t concern herself greatly with money-mak-ing, but adds: “No woman likes to be compared to anyone. I am flattered when people say these things but it’s about tennis. How you look is nice but it does not help you win points.”
Not in the competitive arena it doesn’t, but away from the court, it is a whole different ball game.