Re: Ana's Fans Summarize Her Year And Her Progress
Very interesting article and
by Pete Bodo,from tennis com
That headline expresses how I'm feeling about the ATP and WTA now, with just a handful of days left in the season. Is Shanghai important? Sure. Will the winner take a significant advantage into 2009 or has the Tennis Masters Cup become some sort of cipher? Got me. I confess that at this point I'm just eager for it all to end, although it's funny how often the ending yields more thought-provoking conclusions that we expect as we slog through those final yards and inches. On the men's side, the tennis year is like a tight, well-plotted movie that suddenly gets bogged down in a seemingly interminable ending that introduces a variety of new themes and characters - yet we all know that there won't be a last-minute plot twist to significantly re-shape our view of 2008. Or so it seems, at the moment.
The women are done, so what does Doha tell us? Among other things, that the changing of a guard in tennis isn't always as cleanly orchestrated and crisply executed as it is at, say, Buckingham Palace. I saw a lot of rifles dropped, hats flying, and women bumping into each other as they tried to follow the choreography. In the late stages, I found myself thinking a lot about Venus Williams. When the dust finally settled, my thoughts turned to Ana Ivanovic.
Overall, the message seems to be that 2009 is up for grabs: Discount either Williams sister at your peril, Jelena Jankovic still hasn't summited at a Grand Slam event, and Ana Ivanovic leaves more questions asked than answered because of the way she finished the year. And then there's (presumably) healthy and eager Maria Sharapova. But while Jankovic was the firm thread that ran through most of the year, Ivanovic is a more interesting case. I think she's bumped her head on the ceiling of the game and she's well on her way to coming up against something Pete Sampras had to deal with back around 1992, and described this way:
If you want to get to be no. 1 and stay no. 1, you have to get used to living with that target on your back. That's a big decision, because you can have a good life in the Top 10 - eat in the best restaurants, play golf on the best courses in the world, make a lot of money, go deep at tournaments maybe even win a major now and then. . . all without dealing with a whole lot of pressure.Basically, you can hide and have a very good life. The other way is to look at that top ranking and say, "I want this, and I want to hold onto it for all I'm worth, and I'm willing to take the pressure and make all the sacrifices and live my life with that target on my back."
Okay, let's remember that Pete Sampras didn't have that conversation with himself six or seven months after his breakout win at the US Open of 1990. For a good two years, Sampras treaded water, tried to deal with his new notoriety and an improved lifestyle, and wasn't at all convinced that he wanted to don that garment with the bullseye sewn on the back. Slowly, though, he took stock of himself, he took stock of the competition, he took stock of expectations - his own, and those of the world-at-large. Only after that period of drift did he realize that he needed to have that conversation with himself, because he finally understood, firsthand, what was at stake and the issues in play. Deciding that it was worth living with a target on his back was his personal Rubicon, and it shaped the rest of his career. He accepted the garment, and in so doing he laid the foundation for the glories that ensued.
Ana A parallel between Pete Sampras and Ana Ivanovic only goes so far, partly because of the tremendous difference between men's and women's tennis. And let's face it, even on her best day, Ivanovic isn't clearly superior to any number of her rivals in any number of key areas that can determine success or failure. In fact, for her to become a player as dominant as, say, Justine Henin, will demand an extraordinary competitive appetite. It will also take Spartan discipline (something she seems willing to adopt) and unwavering focus.
But other players with less than dazzling physical attributes (a la Venus Williams) or skills (Justine Henin) have taken on those burdens and flourished. In fact, Ivanovic is a present-day version of one of them, Chris Evert. The parallels between them are striking. Both of them are conservative personalities who conformed to the "traditional" model - it's an extraordinary comment on what might be called a general globalization that Ivanovic emerged from Serbia (via Switzerland) so, well, smoothly finished, and seemingly in touch with the mainstream tennis gestalt.
As well, Ivanovic's game is economical, precise, and clean in the same way that Evert's was, and she compensates for a lack of power or explosive ability with good anticipation a shrewd grasp of strategy. Evert showed how far steady nerves, the ability to produce her best shots under the most withering pressure, and recognizing her own strengths and weaknesses can take a player. It's the same territory Ivanovic will have to work, and up until the second half of the year, she did the job well.
Outwardly, Ivanovic seems just as cool and unflappable Evert. But she has a sunnier disposition, and seems to lack the cold calculation of which Evert, ever a realist, was a master. I've watched Ivanovic and sometimes felt that her internal dials and pressure gauges were spinning madly and leaping from the green to the red zone more often than she let on. She certainly played nervous, insecure tennis at various times this summer, and Evert almost never did.
Evert was, by any standard, an extraordinary competitor from the moment she made her debut at age 16 at the US Open. At the time (1972), pro women's tennis was a relatively new entity, and the fact that a 16-year old could reach the semifinals at the US national championships was, simply, startling. That worked to Evert's advantage: 23 and 25 year olds wanted to vomit when they considered that, after all the time they'd put into developing their games, they go out and get thrashed by a 16-year old, gum-chewing, gold-hoop earring wearing high school student.
Evert helped shape the future of pro tennis by proving that tennis was just as much a girl's game as one that belonged to mature women. And by the time she retired from the game, the emergence of 16-and-under women players on the WTA tour hardly raised an eyebrow. That also meant that 16-year olds no longer had that powerful intimidation factor to go along with their 16-year old world view - a view both narrow and lethal to opponents. A kid of that age fears nothing, has no idea of the stakes for which she is playing, or the long-term implications of success or failure. A 16-year old tennis player personifies the homily that ignorance is bliss.
And let's remember that the number of high-quality players of every age and the general level of skill, training and coaching has gone through the roof since Evert made her debut. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to imagine that any 15 or 16 year old could pop onto the WTA tour these days and create the kind of havoc once wrought by Evert, Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati or Monica Seles. Given the cast of characters at the top of women's tennis, I'm inclined to think the tour has gone full circle; it's what it was supposed to be at the outset, when a bunch of mature, seasoned pioneers established the Virginia Slims circuit - a women's game.
So I'm willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and believe that at this stage it's easier to underestimate Ivanovic than to overrate her. She's the forgotten player of 2008. Her late-season swoon certainly exposed some chinks in the mental armor. Injuries also played a part in her unraveling, and I was a little surprised by that. After spending some time with Ivanovic and her team in the late winter, I felt that her approach was extremely professional and surprisingly geared to the long term (she seemed to devote more time to general fitness and strengthening regimens than to short-term technical or strategic objectives). I think that approach will pay off in the long term, because mental and emotional stability lie at the end of the road for the physically disciplined.
Here's an interesting question for you: whose year would you rather have - Ivanovic or Jankovic's? In tennis, it's always easier to be the hunter than the hunted, and Ivanovic became the hunted when she won at Roland Garros. A sudden role reversal can throw a player for a loop and leave her in something like a state of shock. Although Jankovic secured the year-end no. 1 spot, I don't think she'll make that transition from predator to prey until she wins a major. Playing with a lot to gain is much easier than playing with a lot to lose; we've seen the process play out over and over through the years.
The resurgence of the old-guard in the WTA, in the form of Venus and Serena Williams, the rehabilitation of Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina, and the uncertainty surrounding Maria Sharapova all loom as obstacles for Jankovic and Ivanovic, the two big winners of 2008. And that will make for an interesting 2009.