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If there is an ideal of tennis perfection in looks, talent and personality, Ana Ivanovic is probably it. There are pretty players, gifted players and personable players but the 19-year-old Serbian is all three. She could have been dreamt up in a laboratory by white-coated scientists on a mission to make the ultimate 21st-century female player.
Small wonder, then, that if she wins the US Open, which starts in just over a week, she is likely to eclipse defending champion Maria Sharapova as the most marketable individual in the women’s game.
Ivanovic has signalled she is capable of following up May’s run to the French Open final, where she lost heavily to Justine Henin, by winning her debut grand-slam title in New York three weeks today. She built on her performances at Roland Garros by reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon and has just broken into the world’s top five, sitting at number four, her highest ever ranking.
She lost unexpectedly early in the Rogers Cup in Toronto this week, but that followed a tough week in Los Angeles where she won her fourth tour title. And last year, she proved her ability on American hard courts when winning the US Open Series by being the top female performer in the string of tournaments that lead up to the season’s final major.
Her success in the US 12 months ago, however, failed to be a portent for the main event itself, a pattern that was frequently repeated early in her career. She emerged from the juniors teeming with potential but took time to adjust to life among the professionals. Her looks ensured that she received plenty of attention, but she struggled to make the transition from starring in advertisements for WTA Tour sponsor Sony Ericsson to taking a leading role where it really mattered – on court.
It is one of the cruelties of tennis that it does not allow for gradual development and instead praises prodigies such as Rafael Nadal and Sharapova, who sparkled at 17 but whose careers may not prove to have the same longevity of some of their slower-burning peers. Ivanovic’s rate of progression is more like that of Roger Federer, who was a star at junior level but did not win his first grand-slam title until he was nearly 22. It took a breakthrough – in Federer’s case qualifying for the 2002 Masters Cup in Shanghai – to give him the self-belief required to go from being potential champion to champion. Ivanovic’s effort in making the French Open final could be a similarly career-defining moment.
Few people are better placed to measure her progress than Sven Groenefeld, who worked with a young Federer and has also had long-term coaching relationships with Mary Pierce and Greg Rusedski, among others. Groenefeld is now special adviser to Ivanovic’s sponsor Adidas, and appears to have earned his salary by convincing her that she was more than just a pretty face.
With Groenefeld’s guidance, she became fitter and her passive, predictable game became much more aggressive and vibrant, and thus far more of a match for the bigger hitters at the top of the game. Her cheerful disposition ensured that she was always liked by her rivals but these days she is feared by them, too.
The experienced Russian Nadia Petrova, who Ivanovic beat in the Los Angeles final last week, rates her forehand as one of the most potent weapons in the women’s game. “I would say she just rips it off without even thinking,” said Petrova. “Comparing with any other players, it is the best forehand by far on tour. Her fitness coach did a good job with her [too], she’s lost some weight and is dangerous. Even out of difficult positions, she’s coming up with big shots.”
Groenefeld says: “I think the biggest improvement is her agility, her flexibility and her movement on court so she is set up much better for the ball now. She’s retrieving a lot better and she’s making her opponents play a lot more balls. Definitely, physically she’s made a huge leap and that has allowed her to play a game that suits her better.
“What I try to do is to have a game-plan A and B, and try to find answers for her. It’s basically simple. Life throws you questions and you have to find an answer. It’s the same on the court – what does your opponent offer you and what you can answer with?
“Through being involved with Federer at the early stage, that is a quality that Roger really perfects. He looks at a player and says, this guy is doing this and that really well, so I’ll find an answer and maybe throw an answer to them and see what they’ve got. Ana is doing that and she’s learning how to play the game.”
The fact that it has taken time to complete her tennis education should not be a surprise, indeed it is remarkable that she managed to become a professional at all, given where she comes from. She first wanted to play tennis at the age of five after seeing Monica Seles on television and remembered the number of the local club by heart so that she could nag her mother into calling it.
Yet this was Belgrade in the difficult years following the Balkans War and facilities for talented young tennis players were so spartan that she was famously forced to practice in an empty swimming pool. While she is too young to remember the war itself, Ivanovic was living in Belgrade when Nato forces bombed the city in 1999, and had to cope with the stigma of coming from a country that was then an international pariah.
“In ’99 when the bombing was, I was a little bit afraid. But then by the time you got used to it, you realised that they are not bombing just everything, just special buildings,” she explained. “It was hard financially then. But also, afterwards, the problem was to get visas to travel. Even now I have so many problems to get visa to go abroad to tournament.”
While much has been made of the emergence of talented Serbian players such as Ivanovic, Novak Djokovic and Jelena Jankovic, none really flourished until they left Serbia as young teenagers and went to train elsewhere. While Djokovic went to Germany and Jankovic to Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida, Ivanovic headed for Switzerland, where she still trains. No wonder it has taken a while for her to reach what appears to be the brink of everything that young tennis players dream of. She seems poised to turn an imperfect past into a perfect future.