Serbian teen lacks killer instinct
Ana Ivanovic is one of those people with a naturally nice disposition. She doesn't have that phony smile or behind-the-back, silver-lined tongue like some other high-level athletes do.
On court and off, she's composed, pleasant and intriguing.
Currently ranked No. 17, the 19-year-old Serbian has enormous potential, but she could be lacking that key ingredient that separates champions from pretenders — the ability to stomp on friends and foes alike.
Nice players don't always finish first, or in the case of the bubbly former No. 1 Kim Clijsters, they occasionally finish first but don't completely live up to their potential and become a dominant player.
If you look at the great champions of the past 25 years, all of them had a mean streak or a cold side — Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin. All of them could also light up a room when in the right frame of mind. But when on court, they were relentless closers.
While Ivanovic flashes the occasional devil-may-care attitude, her angelic face is rarely capable of a demonic stare. Yet she does believe that she's capable of winning Grand Slams and reaching the top.
"I'm very different on-court than off," Ivanovic told FOXSports.com. "It's hard for me to get mean and upset off-court, but once on-court, I think I can be tough and mean. It's hard sometimes, but I realize that sometimes I have to be and that's what keeps me motivated for success."
Motivation has never been a problem for the big-hitting brunette.
Ivanovic is a product of war who learned to play during NATO's 1999 bombing raids on Belgrade. On one such morning, after the air raids had stopped and the "safe" siren sounded, she went out to practice.
It was early spring, and NATO had begun more than three months of bombing of Slobodan Milosovic's Yugoslav government, which it believed to be ethnically cleansing Kosovo Albanians.
But the 11-year-old Ivanovic was already in love with her sport. Nothing would stop her from getting one more practice session in.
"It was a little scary and there were certain times when it was dangerous starting around noon throughout the day and night, but at around 6 a.m. the danger would stop, so for a few hours we would practice," Ivanovic recalled.
While NATO eventually dislodged the Yugoslav government and its Serbian paramilitary police forces, Ivanovic blocked out the politics and conflicts. The reason was simple: From the time she was five when she saw a TV commercial advertising a free tennis clinic, she was hooked on the sport.
So on the first day of bombing, she went to a clinic, danger or no.
"The pro said, 'There's going to be bombing today so maybe it's better we should go home early,' but I wasn't done, so I said, 'Let me just finish a basket, please!'"
The Ivanovic family refused to run and hide. While some of their neighbors went underground, her father, Miroslav, and Dragana, tried to keep the peace inside the household.
"It was tough because I was only 11, but my parents always tried to have us live normal," she said. "We never went into the cellar. That was very important because I didn't want to spend four months in the cellar. We always had a full house of people trying to see the positive side."
Ivanovic showed little fear when potential chaos was around the corner. One day, she went to visit her grandparents and a bomb hit a nearby building.
"I could feel the building and windows shaking and that was most scared that I was," she said. "School stopped, people didn't work and it was tough times, but we knew that it would eventually end."
The bombing did end, but not before Belgrade was wrecked and thousands of Serbs were forced to flee the city in search of a better life. The Ivanovic family eventually moved to Switzerland, where Ana continued her on-court progress, found a backer and better training.
Her parents didn't force her to play — she pushed herself, which is why she simply didn't fade away as a foreign player in a strange locale. Just seven years after they moved, she's top-20 player with the potential to crack the top five.
"I've always loved tennis," she said. "If I would have to choose between a friend's birthday party and practice, I always chose practice. I chose tennis for myself, that's why I don't hate it. It always came from me."
Ivanovic stands 6 feet and has a naturally muscular build and good hands. The only thing stopping her from becoming a top-5 player by year's end is a lack of foot speed, proper balance and the ability to think her way through tough spots.
She can crush the ball off both wings, and with her broad shoulders and sturdy legs, she is one of the few top women who isn't faking it when she launches an inside-out forehand. She's also comes to the net quite a bit and is considered the best young volleyer on the tour.
She had an erratic start to the year, reaching the Tokyo final but bowing out early at Indian Wells and Miami. Last week, she reached the Amelia Island semifinals on green clay, falling to French teen Tatiana Golovin in a long three-setter.
This week, she's seeded seventh at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., where she could go a long way toward improving her Grand Slam hopes by winning the title. Several top-ranked players, including No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 2 Maria Sharapova, No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo and No. 6 Martina Hingis all withdrew, which could improve Ivanovic's chances.
And those good looks are helping her popularity. Though Maria Sharapova is the current poster child of women's tennis, Ivanovic was named the sport's sexiest player by a fan poll on one Internet site last year, edging out the popular Russian. Her response was to thank her fans, but she added that she was sure she was honored because of her on-court success.
"I think people know me because of how I play tennis, not because of how I look," she said. "But I'm willing to do something different and interesting to keep my tennis for a while."
But when asked whether she could see herself designing her own clothes a la Sharapova and Serena, or leading a red carpet-lifestyle, she waved the question away.
"I enjoy playing tennis," she said. "It's hard work. Like every girl, I like to see what's in, but as far as fashion and design, I don't like that. It's crazy to think about me as model. My dreams are still tennis dreams."