She was supposed to be the fresh and happy new face of women's tennis, but 2009 has been a struggle for Ana Ivanovic. Do we want her to be something she isn't?
By Stephen Tignor
Wimbledon’s Court 4 is centrally located and always heavily trafficked, but late on the first Tuesday of this year’s tournament it had burst at the seams. Fans sat shoulder to shoulder on the stone bleachers that rise to the right. They stood four deep behind the wooden benches to the left. Latecomers strained on tiptoes to grab whatever tiny view they could. The overflow of humanity flooded out onto the surrounding grounds. Like well-mannered tennis observers everywhere, most of those who could see the action clapped enthusiastically for high-quality shots and simmered down into a tense hush before crucial points. Others, packs of young men mostly, let out long whistles after each rally.
Young and old, polite and rude, scruffy lads and decorous ladies, all of them had gathered for a chance at a close-up view of Ana Ivanovic. Normally ensconced within the game’s glamorous, big-ticket arenas, the former No. 1 had seen her star dim just enough in 2009 to make her available to the sidecourt masses. The atmosphere, as it had been at many of her matches this year, was double-edged. On the one hand, there was a current of voyeuristic electricity humming through the crowd—the low, late sun put an extra shimmer on Ivanovic’s long dark hair, her immaculate white tennis dress, and her deeply tanned skin. On the other hand, there was a panicky sense of impending disaster, as if the Serb were wobbling on a 50-foot-high tightrope rather than playing tennis.
The spectators’ fear was understandable. This should have been a routine first-round match against 58th-ranked Lucie Hradecka, yet it was tied at 6-all in the third set. Ivanovic’s service tosses sailed waywardly—on one point the ball was too far back, on the next it was too far forward. Her ground strokes were equally capricious. After thumping a perfectly measured backhand winner into the corner, she took the same swing a minute later only to see the ball smack against her racquet frame and shoot straight up into the air. Between points, Ivanovic slapped her thigh in self-punishment and made searching, fearful eye contact with her family in the stands. Her fist pumps had an air of desperation.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Court 4, which rests on the razor-thin border between show-court stardom and sidecourt oblivion, isn’t where most of us thought the 21-year-old Ivanovic would be spending her time in 2009. This was a player who had made an impact on tour at age 17 with her smoothly muscular baseline game, and had patiently climbed the ranks from there. Over the next four years, Ivanovic had slimmed down, ironed out the inconsistencies that came with her long limbs and low-margin strokes, and learned to make the most of her ballstriking skills, which remain among the most effortlessly lethal in women’s tennis.
Still, the question remained: Did the warm and ever-smiling Serb, apparently without a mean bone in her body, have the will to compete with the overtly determined women—Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin—at the top? You can’t blame the WTA tour for hoping so. New blood on the women’s side has been hard to fi nd in recent years. Of the scores of hopefuls who have made their debuts this decade, only one, Sharapova, has turned out to be a star with staying power.
In the first half of 2008, Ivanovic didn’t prove that she was a killer, exactly; that’s pretty much the last word that comes to mind when you listen to her chatter exuberantly through a press conference. But working with coach Sven Groeneveld for most of ’08, she proved that she’s conscientious and ambitious enough to grasp for Grand Slams, rather than being satisfied with celebrity status and an enviable bank account. In February ’08, Ivanovic reached the Australian Open final; four months later, she won her first major, the French Open, to become No. 1. Women’s tennis seemed, finally, to have produced a fresh and marketable face for the future.
Alas, Ivanovic would fight a thumb injury during the summer of 2008 and win just one more tournament that year. The new season brought little new hope, as she failed to win an event through the first seven months of 2009. As she had on Court 4 at Wimbledon, she looked less like a champion of the future and more like someone just trying to keep it together out there.
So which is she? Was Ivanovic ever destined to dominate? Anyone looking for clues probably won’t find them by talking to her. When I interviewed Ivanovic this spring in Indian Wells, she was as straightforward and upbeat as ever, her face a brick wall of sincere good cheer. “Hi, I’m Ana,” she said with a smile as she shook my hand. That may not sound noteworthy, aside from the fact that the pro tennis player’s standard method for greeting a member of the press is a silent and slightly grudging nod.
Not so for Ivanovic, who leans into questions with grinning enthusiasm. She’s happiest when she’s detailing her wide variety of loves. She loves the United States, where “the people are so nice.” She loves the California desert, because “you can have time for yourself.” She loves crooners like David Gray and John Mayer—“I’m romantic,” she says with a laugh. At different times Ivanovic has also expressed her love for backgammon, Sudoku, roller coasters, the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and tennis practice.
Ivanovic’s affections extended even to the room where we were sitting, an empty players’ lounge cluttered with video-game consoles and sandwich wrappers. “It’s so quiet here, I love it,” she said in a half-whisper. For a chatty person, Ivanovic talks a lot about the pleasures of solitude.
“Sometimes I wish I could get away from everything and go somewhere where nobody knows me,” she says. Ivanovic laughs as these words leave her mouth; it’s not a melancholy concept to her. Being alone seems less an escape than just another way for her to enjoy herself, not all that different from running around a tennis court. In that sense, the sport fits her. It’s made for that weird paradox, the outgoing loner.
“I know I can’t just disappear,” Ivanovic adds, even though getting away from tennis has crossed her mind more than once over the past year. She also says that she has been conflicted at times on court. “I would ask myself, Should I play aggressive”—“aggresseev” is how it sounds in her accented English—“or hit with spin? After a point, I would think, What should I have played? I’d hit one ball one way and the second one differently.”
To help counter this indecisiveness, Ivanovic hired Martina Navratilova’s former coach, Craig Kardon, in February. The combination seemed to be a winning one after Ivanovic reached her first final of 2009 in Indian Wells.
Still, to get there she fought through long spells of tentative play, and her results soon went south again. Ivanovic failed to reach the quarterfinals in each of her next five events. Hardest of all may have been her 6-2, 6-3 defeat at the hands of Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round at Roland Garros. Azarenka, then a teenager, beat the defending champion routinely and without seeming to harbor any doubts about her superiority. Ivanovic dropped out of the Top 10 and split with Kardon after the tournament.
“The second year after you’ve made a big jump can be tough,” Kardon says. “She put pressure on herself after she became No. 1.”
Kardon believes that Ivanovic can win Slams again, but to do that “she needs a plan to deal with her emotions during matches,” he says, adding that Ivanovic had been through some “turmoil” in 2009, and that she may have felt the need this spring to turn everything around as soon as, or sooner than, humanly possible.
Her 2008 success had brought with it a triple whammy of distractions: sharper scrutiny, heightened expectations, and increased demands on her time. By June, they had produced a crack in Ivanovic’s toothy veneer. “There’s really not much friendship between the girls on tour,” Ivanovic told London’s Mail On Sunday before Wimbledon. “There’s so much rivalry and jealousy, everyone just hangs out in their own camp. In the locker room, you can feel the jealousy.” As for her celebrated looks, they seemed as much a curse as a blessing. “No girl likes to be compared to another,” Ivanovic said. “I feel flattered that people like the way I look, but it doesn’t help you win points. I think the reason there’s less rivalry and more friendship on the men’s tour is because they don’t deal with this element.” A month later, Ivanovic was the subject of a Vogue profile entitled “Ace Interrupted,” accompanied by a moody shot of her on a boardwalk in France, and she was hounded by paparazzi in Scotland while she watched her boyfriend, Australian golfer Adam Scott, play the British Open.
But for all of those outside pressures, it’s the ones from within that Ivanovic feels the most, according to the people who have worked with her.
“The thing that makes Ana easy to coach,” Kardon says, “is that she wants it very badly and pushes herself.”
“She can be a bit of a perfectionist,” says Darren Cahill, a former coach of Andre Agassi who was working with Ivanovic over the summer. Like Kardon, Cahill maintains that with Ivanovic, what you see is what you get. “Ana really is a thoroughly nice person, with a big heart and an innocent intelligence,” he says. “You can say the simplest advice and she’ll look at you wide-eyed, like it’s a revelation. She knows how to make a coach feel good.”
Can Cahill, along with Groeneveld, who rejoined the Serb’s camp this summer, provide any revelations that will help her find her best form again? “Her serve is an issue,” Cahill says. “There’s a technical problem with her toss that she’s been working extremely hard to fix.” The serve, of course, isn’t just another shot. “If you can’t control that,” Cahill says, “it affects your sense of control over your whole game.”
Longtime observers might add that Ivanovic’s style revolves around low-percentage strokes that can easily misfire, and that she doesn’t have the raw speed of Venus Williams or the smooth footwork of her fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic. But whatever her obstacles, we can root for her to overcome them; few would argue that tennis isn’t better off with Ana Ivanovic winning. When she’s clicking with those smooth, aggresseev ground strokes and bubbling over in a victory speech, she makes the sport look good, like fun, like something to love.