The truth about the Wimbledon bombshell: Is tennis star Ana Ivanovic's rags to riches story all it seems?
By David Jones
Last updated at 12:56 AM on 21st June 2008
With her sultry Slavic looks, lithe 6ft 1in figure and adrenaline-charged playing style, Ana Ivanovic is the latest tennis sensation to roll off the East European production line.
And the so-called Serbian Siren is already making the game's other 'babeskis', such as the Russian prototype, Anna Kournikova - who has all but retired at 27 - and even Maria Sharapova, seem like last year's models.
Last month, Ana won her first Grand Slam tournament, the coveted French Open, and next week she is sure to wow Wimbledon.
Serbian siren: Ana Ivanovic is No 1 seed for next week's Wimbledon
Not only is she the number one seed, and hotly tipped to take the women's title, but in the opinion of veteran Greek gossip writer Taki, a former Davis Cup player who has been ogling the female courts since frilly skirts were in vogue, she is quite simply 'the most beautiful player in the history of tennis'.
Added to which, Ana actually has a personality - unlike so many Identikit players from the former Eastern bloc.
'In her post-match press conferences, she makes eye contact with the person asking the question and chats to them directly, whereas the other girls just mumble robotic cliche' says one seasoned tennis reporter. 'She's a breath of fresh air, a delight.'
Her manager, Dan Holzmann, inevitably concurs. He waxes lyrical about Ana's intelligence (she is studying for a finance degree by correspondence, and her idea of fun is to read Freudian psychology) and her wholesome, unaffected, girl-next-door charm.
All this, of course, makes Ana a marketing agent's dream.
At 20 years old, her striking features - flashing grey-green eyes, smooth olive complexion, gleaming white smile - already gaze down from giant advertising hoardings in Europe's major capitals.
And she has lucrative deals with Rolex, Adidas and Peugeot distributor Verano Motors.
Assuming her success continues, she stands every chance of becoming the highest-paid female sportswoman in history - with potential career earnings of up to £100 million.
Bright future: The 20-year-old could become the highest-paid female sportswoman in history - with potential career earnings of up to £100 million
She even comes with a personal story more dramatic and uplifting than that of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who are fabled to have dodged gangsters' bullets during childhood tennis lessons in the badlands of Los Angeles.
Ana learned her tennis strokes in her native Belgrade during the Nato bombing campaign against the murderous regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.
No interview is complete without her childhood memories of how training sessions had to be timed to avoid the terrifying air raids, when the family would huddle in the cellar for safety.
Once, a shell shattered a nearby building as she visited her grandmother's home.
Even when the blitz was over, her hardship continued, for Serbia was a pariah state, so she had to queue for hours for visas to play in overseas tournaments, or travel by bus to Hungary and fly from there.
Another often-repeated anecdote relates how she practised in a drained Olympic swimming pool, converted into makeshift tennis courts because it was too expensive to heat the water in winter.
This is stirring stuff and, in marketing terms, it certainly adds to her allure. But there is a Cinderella-style twist to Ana's story, too.
When she was in her early teens, the Serbian economy was in ruins and her parents, Miroslav, a small businessman, and Dragana, a customs lawyer, clearly had no way of raising the £35,000 it costs to fund a junior player on the international tennis circuit.
Just when it seemed Ana might have to abandon her ambition, however, Dan Holzmann stepped in.
Although he knew little about professional tennis, the Israeli-Swiss entrepreneur was urged to consider sponsoring her by a Serb who taught at his local club.
He invited Ana and her family to his home in Basel, and was so impressed that, although she was then ranked only the 27th best junior in the world, he offered her a contract - even before watching her play in a match.
'The first thing that struck me was her personality, then her look,' Holzmann told me somewhat gushingly.
Star attraction: Ana Ivanovic arrives at the pre-Wimbledon party hosted by Richard Branson in London on Thursday
'Warming to his theme, he went on: 'It was a bit like when you fall in love. When you see a girl somewhere, you'll never talk to her if she's not pretty. Then you understand that she's a great personality.
'I'm a businessman and I was trying to put a package together that might be successful, so I wanted someone good looking. Who knows, if she was ugly I might not have chosen her.'
It was a gamble that has since paid handsome dividends. Holzmann, 36, agreed to finance Ana's career for the next four years at a personal cost in excess of £250,000, with the proviso that he would become her agent and manager.
'I knew, realistically, if she was unsuccessful the family would never be able to pay me back.
'But two years ago she paid me the entire amount in one cheque. Of course, I'm now in the plus. I'm not helping her financially now - she's helping me!'
This is his little joke. A self-made multi-millionaire who began a pizza delivery enterprise as a student, Holzmann also runs several other successful businesses, including Juice PLUS+, which claims to be the world's biggest nutritional health capsule company. But he set up DH Management specifically to handle Ana, still its sole client.
Even by the standards of women's tennis - which has become a magnet for sharp-eyed businessmen scouting for talent and sex appeal - this is quite some success story.
Intriguingly, however, as I discovered in Belgrade last week, it transpires that there is rather more to the story than Mr Holzmann reveals.
Ana's parents may indeed have been strapped for the kind of money it takes to buy the best tennis equipment and travel between tournaments, but by Serbian standards her family were middle class.
The spacious, red-tiled corner house they shared until she was 15 years old stands in one of the better districts of Belgrade, away from the ubiquitous, grey, Cold War-era tower blocks.
It is surrounded by a courtyard spacious enough for Ana - who was bitten by the tennis bug after watching Monica Seles on TV when she was five years old - to thump tennis balls against the high perimeter wall.
Next to the house there is a tiny shop, which her father, Miroslav, ran first as a printing business, then later an off-licence, according to her former neighbour, Pera Blanusha.
Superstar in the making: Ivanovic won the French Open Women's Title earlier this month
Mr Blanusha reveals Ana's great-grandfather, a renowned ironmonger, once owned seven other adjacent properties, but they were confiscated when Marshal Tito's communist regime took power after the war.
Her paternal grandfather, he adds, was a 'big- shot banker', while her mother's father was a senior officer in the old Yugoslavian army. 'They were respectable - certainly not poor.'
Daniel Holzmann is at pains to point out that Mr and Mrs Ivanovic are unlike many other tennis parents, in that they weren't over-pushy during her developmental years.
In fact, he says, her bond with her mother - who travels everywhere with her on tour, and whom she describes as her 'best friend' - was a key factor in his decision to sponsor her.
By all accounts, this is true. Ana has always motivated herself, and those who know her are confident she will never be troubled by the sort of traumas that beset parent-pecked stars such as Mary Pierce.
Even so, her quest for glory sometimes involved measures that would be considered extreme by many child-rearing experts.
Her first coach, Nikola Cetnik, told me how she was put on a calorie-controlled diet soon after she came under his tutelage.
At the time, she was six. 'She got a bit chubby,' he recalls. 'Her mother had to stop her eating biscuits and ice-cream.'
Dubiously, one might think, given her tender years, Cetnik insists that Ana took this sacrifice in her stride.
'She had a strong will and ambition,' he shrugs. 'It was the same with her training. We had to hold her back; Ana wanted to work much more.'
This may be so, but with the onset of adolescence, when her gruelling training regime increased to six hours a day during the school holidays, her resolve was sometimes strained to breaking point.
Her second coach, Dejan Vranes, recalls how she wept when he pushed her to the limits of her endurance.
'I was under instructions from her sponsor to push her as hard as I could. This was when she was 14 years old, and a girl of that age doesn't want to train that hard. She wants to be with her friends, and she doesn't have the mental stamina.
'Ana would cry and beg me to stop pushing her so hard, but I didn't listen. After three months, she would cry less and eventually she stopped crying altogether.
'But to be fair to her parents, they said: "Ana, if you don't want to continue this, all you have to say is 'stop' and we can walk away and start a new life."
She never did that.
'She started putting signs on the wall at home, saying: "What is the goal? The goal is to be Number One."'
So, who was this nameless sponsor whom, Vranes says, urged him to push Ana so relentlessly? By Dan Holzmann's account, it must have been him, for he told me he signed Ana when she was 14, a claim he repeats on his website.
However, the founder of another Swiss-based sports marketing agency begs to differ. Adrien de Meyer says his company, UpturnOne, recognised Ana's potential while scouting for talent in the tennis hotbed of Serbia in 2001, long before Holzmann came on the scene.
Soon afterwards, he says, he signed a contract with her parents. At the time, Ana was 13 years old, and he says this deal lasted until shortly after her 15th birthday, in November 2003, during which time he invested £75,000 in her development.
Meyer claims to be able to prove this with documents, emails and video footage of Ana at training camps.
He says his company was forced to let Ana go because of financial difficulties. He does not want any money, he adds, only acknowledgement by Holzmann for the part Upturn One played in Ana's rise.
'We are proud of Ana and we would be happy if she gave us a bit of recognition, and was allowed to talk about us a bit more, because we discovered her and fought hard for her.
'On Mr Holzmann's website, he says he founded DG Management for Ana in 2001. No doubt he'll correct that after reading your article.'
Later, when I put this to Gavin Versi, the young Cambridge graduate who handles PR
for DH Management, he admitted they hadn't signed Ana until May, 2003, six months after her 15th birthday.
He says there was 'a simple mistake' on the website which he rectified after the Mail drew it to his attention. 'Dan never claims to have discovered Ana,' said Versi.
'He didn't bring her to Switzerland, UpturnOne did. We give them praise for what they did. Dan never mentions it because he's never asked about it. He's very modest about it all.'
Some might disagree with this assertion. However, few would question her manager's acumen and commitment in guiding his protege.
In the early days, he bought her a laptop and mobile phone to make her feel the equal of other girls on the tour.
Ana and her mother lodged at his home before moving into a smart apartment in Basel (she also has a flat in Belgrade). At first they stayed in bargain-basement hotels, but as her results improved, her manager booked her into better hotels.
But Holzmann replaced Vranes with a succession of more experienced coaches; and two years ago, an Australian strength and conditioning trainer, Scott Byrnes, was added to Team Ana.
Since his arrival, she is thought to have shed a stone and become more flexible and mobile - key factors in her ascent to the top of the world rankings.
What else do we know about her? She is superstitious and avoids walking on the chalk-lines between points. She loves TV dramas such as Prison Break. And she loathes bullying - she has chosen to be the face of Unicef's 'Schools Without Violence' campaign.
In Belgrade last week, where Ana's French Open victory was celebrated with a homecoming rally attended by tens of thousands of cheering fans, it was also alleged that she is embroiled in a passionate romance with Byrnes.
The Australian was among those aides who attempted to run round the Arc de Triomphe wearing dresses following Ana's Grand Slam win (before being stopped by police), and the tabloid newspaper Kurir claimed that his humour is one reason she is smitten by him.
Versi scoffs at this rumour. Ana may have myriad admirers, but, he says, remains unattached.
With Wimbledon approaching, this is precisely what every red-blooded fan wants to hear.
But, I press Versi, doesn't the marketing man's dream girl have any faults? She sounds almost too perfect to be true.
'Well, sometimes on court she can get angry and she has sworn. Not at the umpire, though - at herself. She's embarrassed about that now and felt she let herself down.'
Her image-makers must be relieved she's cured that little habit. It could have reduced her market value - well, by a few thousand dollars, at least.