View Full Version : Tignor article and blog entries on Ivanovic, Azarenka and Safina

Mar 18th, 2009, 10:33 AM
Article on Ivanovic :
Glass Half Full: Tignor On Ana Ivanovic (http://www.tennis.com/features/general/features.aspx?id=168230)

Blog entry on Azarenka :
IW: Lean and Hungry (http://tennisworld.typepad.com/thewrap/2009/03/iw-lean-and-hungry.html#comments)

Earlier blog entry about Safina :
IW: Looking Out for No (http://tennisworld.typepad.com/thewrap/2009/03/iw-looking-out.html)


Mar 18th, 2009, 10:59 AM
Glass Half Full: Tignor On Ana Ivanovic

By Steve Tignor

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—How will Ana Ivanovic spend the day before her match? She might lie in bed and listen to a smoothie like David Gray or John Mayer. Or she might read some of the Dalai Lama's advice on the art of happiness. Then she'll head to the courts and try to win some money off her coach by hitting five slice backhand drop shots in a row. Finally, she'll finish by sealing up a few Tupperware containers so she has something to eat after her match tonight. The life of a tennis star and global celebrity can be pretty low-key around these parts.

"I'd like to find a restaurant here that's open after 8!" Ivanovic says with a loud laugh and bursting voice that echoes around the players’ lounge at the BNP Paribas Open.

Not that she's complaining. I doubt she needs too many tips on happiness from the Lama. Ivanovic is a glass-half-full kind of person all the way. The analogy itself is too dreary for her personality—why even ask? She'd just drink what's there and fill the glass back up.

When we met for an interview yesterday, Ivanovic said, "Hi, I'm Ana," and shook my hand. Not all the players shake your hand. Roger Federer, sure; Rafael Nadal, not at the beginning of an interview—when I talked to him, he seemed too ADD at that moment to get his arm all the way out—but yes at the end; Dinara Safina, no. When Ivanovic was led into the deserted lounge yesterday, she looked around and smiled.

"It's so quiet here, I love it." (Can her glass be very half full?) Ivanovic took a chair, sat at its very edge, and leaned her head toward each question as if she couldn't wait to get down to communicating. A phrase I've heard applied to certain happy people from my home state of Pennsylvania came to mind. They say that deep down, PA-ers, when all is said and done, "know that the truth is good." The look on Ivanovic's face makes you think she knows the same thing.

Despite her enthusiasm for other people—no pro has as much fun on a practice court with her coaches and none takes questions from the press with such a forthright eagerness—Ivanovic betrays some qualities of the loner. She reads a lot and likes to "lose herself in her thoughts" with her headphones on. She likes this relaxed and out-of-the-way tournament because "it's so nice to have time to yourself."

"Sometimes I wish I could get away from everything and go somewhere where nobody knows me," she says, laughing, of course; it's not a melancholy concept to her. If Ivanovic is a loner, she's a happy loner, not a tortured one. 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. The sport fits her; it's made for that weird paradox, the outgoing loner.

"But I know I can't just disappear."

"People everywhere know you now?"

"Kind of, yeah," she says, just smiling this time.

It's true, there's no disappearing for Ivanovic, especially when she's on the court. But getting away from it all crossed her mind more than once over the last six months as her results suffered. "I was a little tired of the game," she says, "because I was a little lost on the court."

She says she had "doubts" out there. "I would ask myself, 'Should I play aggressive [the way Ivanovic says it—aggresseev—the word sounds, well, not all that aggressive] 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 ball differently." You could see this most clearly at the Australian Open, where she was outhit by Alisa Kleybanova in a sloppy third-rounder.

A lot had happened in a short amount of time for the then-20-year-old. In the spring, Justine Henin had retired abruptly and unexpectedly. While that event allowed Ivanovic to win the French Open and reach No. 1—"my dreams"—it also put her a little ahead of schedule, according to her former coach, Sven Groenefeld, who has said that they weren't quite prepared to handle that success.

"I didn't feel the pressure of No. 1 right away," Ivanovic says, dismissing the idea that she was overwhelmed at Wimbledon by her new status last year. (Actually, "dismiss" is way too strong a word for how she speaks—"smiles it off” is more apt.) "I was just happy with everything all at once. The pressure didn't come until later, after I was hurt [she injured her thumb during the summer of 2008]. At the U.S. Open, I wasn't fit enough to play. These were hard times."

"Pressure" is a word that Ivanovic repeats many times in a conversation—not surprising, she says about three times as many words per minute than most other people. But pressure keeps coming up. The way she says the word, it sounds like she wouldn't know what it was, except that other people are always asking her about it. Still, early this year Ivanovic found herself missing it.

"At the start of the season, I knew something was wrong. I was too relaxed," she says. "Nobody was putting pressure on me anymore! I wanted it back. I know now it makes you sharper. It's a reward."

You can add pressure to the list of things Ivanovic loves. She loves playing tennis, she loves competing, she loves roller coasters, she loves the desert weather, she loves the United States, she loves the BNP Paribas because there's nothing going on, because she gets to "go home and chill out"—she's even found a way to love Coldplay (what won't she love?). And she loves working with her new coach, Craig Kardon, with whom she hooked up with earlier this year after she and Groenefeld split up.

"I enjoy so much working with him," she says of Kardon, ex-helper of Martina Navratilova. "He makes me confident"—another favorite word—"and he supports my aggressive game. We play lots of different games in practice, and we always make bets, which is so much fun."

Ivanovic says she has learned about herself these last six months. She's not utterly dependent on her entourage—she looks to them during matches but doesn't lock eyes with them the way, say, Henin did—and she doesn't need a coach to tell her everything. But she does need someone to back up her own ideas of her game, so there's no confusion in her mind when she's out there alone.

"The coaching relationship gets very intense," she says, "but you're still by yourself on court." Ivanovic thinks she has turned a corner, gotten back to basics—aggresseev-ness—and the world will see the results soon.

"My goal this year is to win a Grand Slam." This was somewhat more ambitious than what Safina stated as her 2008 goal on Sunday: "To stay healthy."

We'll see what happens. Ivanovic has been up and down in the tournament so far, but true to her word, she's been forcing the action, and she's too superior an athlete to lose to many lower-ranked players when she does that. But if she goes down to Flavia Pennetta tonight, we'll be talking about the Serb’s demise all over again.

Beyond her game, what's most interesting about Ivanovic is her stealthy intelligence. As I've said, she's a motor mouth, and it's hard to believe she can think with any depth at that speed. Her conversation can sound something like this, from her presser after her opening match:

"NoobviouslythereweresomethingsIwantedtoworkon. Oneofthemwascomingtothenet. ButIactuallyfeltreallyshortoutthere." Pause to see if anyone catches the joke. No. Nobody could follow her. So she gives the explanation: "I got lobbed a couple of times." How did she work that joke in there? There's more depth of mind in Ivanovic than you might believe possible at first. It's heartening to think someone this sunny on the outside can be quick and thoughtful and not angry on the inside. Maybe the truth really is good.

We know the sport is better off with Ivanovic winning. That's not because she's good looking, or not just that. It's because, when she's hitting her smooth, aggresseev shots and trying out her happy fist-pump, she makes the sport itself look good. Tennis is not just for quiet masters like Federer or fired-up superjocks like Nadal or ultra-confident competitors like the Williamses. It isn't just for loners, either. Ivanovic shows us it can be for lovers, too.

Executive editor Steve Tignor is covering Indian Wells for TENNIS and blogging for TENNIS.com.

Mar 18th, 2009, 11:00 AM
IW: Lean and Hungry
Posted 03/17/2009 @ 9 :34 PM

Wherever you see her, whether it's kicking a ball on the training field, battering a backhand on the practice court, or grunting her way to a tough win in the high heat on Stadium 3, 19-year-old Victoria Azarenka of Belarus (and now Arizona) always looks hungry. Not in the I-need-to-eat sense, but in the I-need-to-get-better-right-now sense.

Every morning this week Azarenka has been one of the first players out on the field to work out. She and her trainer, Mark Wellington, begin slowly. Headphones on, she swings her arms forward and backward, then gently tosses and kicks a soccer ball with him. The drills and the ball gradually speed up until both player and trainer are quick-stepping to keep it in front of them. Usually, you'll see players take small breaks during these types of workouts and share a laugh with their trainer. Not Azarenka. When the ball gets past her, she stamps her foot in frustration.

Wellington, an Englishman who is starting a tennis academy in Delray Beach, Fla., has traveled full-time—42 weeks a year—with Maria Sharapova and Tatiana Golovin in the past. In 2009, he's doing 18 weeks with Azarenka. He says she's closer to Sharapova than Golovin in her intensity. "She's like Maria, she doesn't want to hang out. She wants to play tennis."

While she's already ranked No. 11, Azarenka is still learning. "She loves the fitness work," Wellington says, "but she's just finding out why she's doing it. We have to teach her what the exercises do for her and what she needs to work on. But she's eager to learn. Everything is raw right now." If anything, Wellington says that Azarenka is a more talented natural athlete than Sharapova. She's more comfortable doing different things with the ball than Sharapova was when she was younger. She just needs more of everything: explosiveness, stamina, strength.

Wellington says that Azarenka is in a transition period right now. "She's growing up and she's on the tour full-time, and she wants to control things," he says, "but she still gets frustrated." From Andy Murray to Ana Ivanovic, the issue of career control is a common one on the tours. These are college-age kids coming into their own and figuring out how much distance to put between themselves and their parents or whatever tennis academy or federation was responsible for raising them. Azarenka seems to be in the thick of that process right now.

After her fairly light early-morning workout, she gets down to intense business on the court. While most of her colleagues keep it in cruise control in practice—they've got matches to play later, after all—Azarenka is in full flight, and grunt, the whole time. She leaps into her ground strokes, bangs her racquet on the court when she misses, and doesn't crack a smile. Just when the workout finally seems to be over, she stalks back to the middle of the court for one last session of target practice.

Not surprisingly, one of Wellington's primary jobs is getting Azarenka to manage her intensity efficiently. "At tight spots in a match," he says, "she can expend too much energy."

Azarenka kept her cool on a hot afternoon today, beating Shahar Peer 7-5, 6-4 and keeping up an all-business attitude throughout. She was stern with the ball kids, and with the fans. At 4-4 in the second, something flashed in her eye. Azarenka stopped play and pointed into the stands at the opposite end of the court. One guy thought she was pointing at him, so he took off his hat. Another couple folded up their umbrella. Azarenka only got more frustrated, yelling, "Hello! Hello!" at someone. Finally, a woman took off a shiny plastic badge she was wearing around her neck. It had been a five-minute delay, with a lot of confusion involved, but Azarenka walked back to the baseline and ended the next point with a perfect drop shot. She broke serve and held at love for the match.

As far as her game is concerned, her backhand is her stronger stroke. She hits it well out in front, with a nice forward lean, and full but compact extension. It's Azarenka's forehand that's more problematic. She swoops up on it, at times as if she's throwing a horseshoe, and tends to sail it long; she can also get crossed up with her footwork and end up backing out of the shot. It gets better when she's on defense, when she's reacting and not creating pace. Early on, Peer wrong-footed Azarenka a number of times, and it seemed that she might be able to outfox her less-experienced opponent. But Azarenka proved to be more consistent and willful in pursuit of the advantage in rallies. She's no pusher.

Flaws? While Azarenka may be a better athlete than Sharapova, I don't see the same explosiveness through the court in her shots yet. And even on her excellent forehand, she can get anxious and pull it wide. The serve is serviceable; she has a more fully developed motion than many of the other women. Her best attribute, for the moment, is how deadly serious she is about it all. But this remains a transition, as her trainer says—if she doesn't keep rising in the rankings, will that seriousness turn to self-defeating frustration?

I saw Wellington after the match today, and he wasn't gushing about the win. He said Azarenka had spent too much time behind the baseline, and that the famously slow Indian Wells courts, which he says are playing slower than ever this year, didn’t help her flat strokes. But a learning process is a learning process, and a win is a win. Now Azarenka goes on to face a much stronger opponent, Dinara Safina.

For the moment, though, she just wanted to get something to eat. Wellington counseled her to limit it to a salad, because she had to play doubles soon after. Victoria Azarenka: Still hungry.

Mar 18th, 2009, 11:14 AM
IW: Looking Out for No. 1
Posted 03/16/2009 @ 1 :16 AM

The crowd is dozing, the second set is dragging, and the woman across the net isn't giving Dinara Safina anything to work with. Peng Shuai shovels one ball down the middle after another—no angles, no pace. It's time for the top seed to take matters into her own hands. This, of course, means that she must let out an unintelligible, or perhaps Russian, scream that turns into a full sentence—maybe a paragraph—of anger. The sleepy Southern California afternoon is punctured. The audience, collectively stunned out of its torpor, gives the players the biggest cheer they receive all afternoon. Safina wins the next two points, the game, the set, and, eventually, not without more struggle and a few more self-lacerations, the match. After yesterday's upsets, the tournament needs its No. 1 seed. Safina, not at her best, has obliged.

"When I was ranked No. 30 or 40, I would say I am better than this." Safina starts to raise her arm to punctuate these last four words, then puts it down again quietly before it gets above her shoulder. On paper it sounds like another moment of rising frustration from Safina, except that she's said these words to me in a high voice that's just above a whisper. They're said not with anger, but with motivation.

Behind any questions of fitness or toughness or skill is the question of motivation. In his 1980s profile of Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, Frank DeFord went back to Knight's days as a player at Ohio State to find the ultimate source for his success as a coach. Knight had been a bench warmer on an NCAA championship team that included All American Jerry Lucas and future Celtics great John Havlicek. Lucas was the better college player, which motivated Havlicek, who became a Hall of Fame pro, which in turn motivated Knight to prove his own worth and superior of knowledge of the game.

Tennis is a hotbed of this kind of one-upmanship. Or, to be more precise, one-up-woman-ship: Serena Williams is, if nothing else, the world's biggest kid sister. She had Venus to look up to, to emulate, and to vanquish. Dinara Safina is also a younger sibling to a famous major-title-winning tennis player, Marat Safin. On the surface, you might think this fact hasn't motivated her as thoroughly as it did Serena. You might be wrong.

"Having an older brother was good and bad," she says in the take-no-breaths vocal overdrive that characterizes so many women tennis players. "it helped you at first, but then I always wanted to be better, so I put more pressure on myself to be better."

That's an inauspicious beginning, but this story has a happy ending, and Safina breaks into a quick and sudden smile as she reaches it. "It made me want to be recognized as my own person, and now I'm there." For Safina, as for Serena, being a good tennis player wasn't just about excelling at a sport. It was about, as she so simply states it, being recognized as her own person. Is there any more powerful motivation than that?

Of course, Safina knows she'll never really be her own person. At her press conference today she was asked whether she ever teased Marat about being more famous than he is.

"No, no. Today one person asked me if I'm the sister of Marat. I'm like, yeah. 'Are you playing tennis [they asked]?' And I look at them, like, Well, OK, yes, I'm also a tennis player. I'm still, I think, known more as his sister."

Next question: Does she celebrate when she goes through a press conference and her brother isn't mentioned. "Yeah," Safina answered with a smile, "but it's never happened. So you see, even today, you ask, so I cannot celebrate."

Today, big brother was out practicing for his match Sunday evening. If he has never fulfilled his potential as a match player, Safin remains among the world's greatest practice players. He's the world's greatest hitter of the ball, as long the mind doesn't need to be engaged. He effortlessly slugged backhands and forehands from a straight-standing position for half an hour, seemingly just for the hell of it. Safin is also one of the few players whose shots have their own sound—it's somewhere between a thunk and a pow (Roger Federer is almost as unique in that his shots produce very little sound at all.). Safin's flick backhand is the closest thing to cannon-fire in tennis. Watching, I wondered, if I lived in a small town and it was announced that Safin was coming, but just to practice, would I pay to see it? I'd have to say yes.

Little sister was also out practicing before her match on Sunday. There were about 150 fewer people watching, but the top seed drew her own crowd. Safina wasn't doing anything effortlessly, and she can't hit standing straight up if she wanted to, because this self-conscious, too-tall girl slumps her shoulders. Instead, she hit serve after serve, methodically, grunting loudly, taking time to work out the many kinks in that complicated and slightly disjointed shot. Nothing comes perfectly for Dinara, the way it does for Marat, who owns one of the leanest and cleanest serves in the game's history. Today her coach, Zeltjko Krajan, schooled her on the same fundamentals we've all been schooled on with our serves: keep your head up and your tossing arm high. She couldn't always do it.

Safina ended her session with a little violent fun. She took short balls on her forehand side. "Taking," however, is an understatement of epic proportions. Her little steps weren't meant to get her in position; she looked like was revving herself up. She hit each ball viciously, with a full cut from the shoulder.

Later that afternoon, during her match, Safina hit her forehands the same way. If anything, she errs on the side of too much effort—her backhand is a natural and excellent defensive stroke, but her forehand is a willpower shot, rather than a timing shot. Many years of this effort have made Safina a stronger player than she must have thought she would ever become, even when she was in the rankings wilderness and screaming, in her high whisper, I'm better than this.

What has Dinara learned from Marat? We asked her that question today. She answered with perfect logic, and told us all we needed to know about how she's become a success in her own right.

Q: What lessons have you learned from your brother's experiences?

"Just not to do like he's doing," Safina said with a thin wry smile. "Do completely opposite from him."

Mar 18th, 2009, 11:38 AM
Nice read, thanks for posting.

Mar 18th, 2009, 01:26 PM
Those are very good articles. Tignor has written a lot about the WTA so far. He had one on JJ when she lost to Nastya and one on Caro when she played Kaia.

Mar 18th, 2009, 01:35 PM
IW: Lean and Hungry
Posted 03/17/2009 @ 9 :34 PM

Azarenka kept her cool on a hot afternoon today, beating Shahar Peer 7-5, 6-4 and keeping up an all-business attitude throughout. She was stern with the ball kids, and with the fans. At 4-4 in the second, something flashed in her eye. Azarenka stopped play and pointed into the stands at the opposite end of the court. One guy thought she was pointing at him, so he took off his hat. Another couple folded up their umbrella. Azarenka only got more frustrated, yelling, "Hello! Hello!" at someone. Finally, a woman took off a shiny plastic badge she was wearing around her neck. It had been a five-minute delay, with a lot of confusion involved, but Azarenka walked back to the baseline and ended the next point with a perfect drop shot. She broke serve and held at love for the match.


wow imagine if a top player did sth like that.The forum would explode.:tape: