Over the past few years, the talented but erratic Ana Ivanovic has developed a rep. Unfortunately, it’s not all that flattering. Even worse, it’s perfectly warranted.
The rap that clings to her like an albatross is that you never know what to expect from Ivanovic when she steps onto a tennis court. Though gifted and equipped with a variety of skills, the Serbian can be a maddening player to watch. She’d have any sports psychologist going crazy trying to figure out why she’s so unpredictable.
In one match she’s superb, dazzling you with an impressive array of shots. In the next, she appears flat and disengaged, committing a bevy of unforced errors. In one game, her artistry can take your breath away. In the very next one, she’s so off, you don’t even recognize her. On one point, she’s scintillating. On the next, she’s gagging all over herself.
As a fan, if you relish the highs and lows and the ups and downs, then Ana is your meat. She’ll either have you coming out of your seat in appreciation or shaking your head in disgust. As a player, Ivanovic is plagued by multiple personalities. She’s the tennis version of Sybil.
Though I’d seen her plenty of times before on television, I’d never had the chance to catch her up close and personal. That all changed on August 3rd when I was present for her semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka in the WTA’s Southern California Open.
Candidly, I wasn’t expecting all that much from Ivanovic. Oh sure, she’d won three prior matches but that didn’t carry much weight with me. Given the fact that she hadn’t won a tournament since late 2011 and having witnessed with my own eyes a number of her meltdowns and diappearences on the tube, my expectations for Ana were rather low. I figured the 24-year-old Azarenka, the world’s No.2 player and a two-time Australian Open champ, would take out Ivanovic with relative ease. Ivanovic’s bipolar ways did little to inspire confidence in her ability to win marquee matchups.
But while Ivanovic’s tennis prowess may alternate from good to bad, there’s one thing about her that doesn’t change. Ana always makes for a striking and arresting figure. Thinking she wasn’t all that tall, I was somewhat taken aback to realize she’s just a shade under 6’1″. Sublimely proportioned with the long legs of a dancer and the tapered waist of a ballerina, Ivanovic is quite the eyeful. And with skin that is tanned and bronzed to perfection, the dark-haired beauty has had male hearts fluttering for quite some time.
But looks don’t buy you much when you’re on the court, grinding it out against determined opponents like Azarenka. At that point, it comes down to heart, will and execution. The packaging is incidental.
Given her past history, I had a feeling that Ivanovic might throw in a clunker and quickly exit stage left. Her capacity for sometimes not showing up couldn’t be dismissed. And at first, my hunch seemed prophetic as Azarenka bagled Ana 6-0 in the first set. Ivanovic looked confounded and dazed.
Ivanovic’s shortcomings were numerous. Her serving was shaky which led to her being on the defensive and prone to double faults. Compounding her woes was the fact that her groundstrokes weren’t much better. Countless unforced errors were coming off of both wings. You could see Ivanovic’s belief and concentration deserting her. Her focus ebbing and waning.
What had to have made this skunking even more galling to Ivanovic was that Azarenka wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders herself. Yes, the star from Belarus delivered a few winners and did move Ivanovic around the court to some degree but she was far from her best. This was more of a case of Ivanovic giving away the first set than Azarenka seizing it.
As the players took a breather between sets, the buzz in the crowd didn’t revolve around the ultimate outcome which already suggested a sure Azarenka victory. Rather, the talk was of whether Ivanovic could even put up enough of a fight to avoid being embarrassed. Some of the patrons were complaining about being stuck with such an awful match and not getting their money’s worth.
Back on the court, Ivanovic didn’t outwardly seem any different. But inside, she had steeled herself and changed her mindset. No longer would she play passively. On the set’s first point, Ivanovic aggressively came to net and put away an angled volley. That led, moments later, to a ripped forehand winner down the line.
By winning that first game, Ivanovic had stemmed the bleeding and created a new narrative. Now, it was she who had momentum on her side and she took advantage of that change in cirsumstance to race to a 3-0 lead before ultimately wrapping up the set 6-4.
As inept and lost as she had appeared in set number one, Ivanovic completely turned it around in the subsequent one. Her serves were now singing with placement and pace, more than a few of which topped the 100 mph mark.
With her serve now squared away, Ivanovic found a rhythm. Energized by a revved up crowd that was clearly behind her, Ivanovic started demonstrating the versatility of her game. Her forehand was producing shots of depth and power that resulted in key winners. And Ivanovic was getting maximum use out of a two-hand backhand that had Azarenka back on her heels.
Ivanovic’s strategy was also giving Azarenka fits. Ana was deftly incorporating drop shots into her tactics which had Azarenka moving back-to-front and side-to-side. Ivanovic would chip here, slice there and then finally pound away.
Ivanovic had undergone an amazing transformation. Much more into the rallies, steady as could be, Ana was channeling the 2008 version of herself when she won the French Open and was, for a brief time, the top player in the world.
But could she sustain the flow, keep the mojo going and then close the deal? Despite the dramatic turn of events, the tenacious Azarenka wasn’t about to go anywhere. Everyone knew Victoria would dig down deep and continue to compete. The question was could Ivanovic match Azarenka’s inner resolve?
And early in the third set, she was doing exactly that. Buffeted by a an effective serve, Ivanovic held up nicely and was all even at 2-2. The match was there for the taking. But just like that, almost as if on cue, Ivanovic predictably lapsed and again fell victim to her own self-inflicted wounds. Her disturbing pattern of making mistakes at inopportune times resurfaced with a vengeance.
Down the stretch, when it mattered most, Ivanovic weakened and faltered. While there’s no arguing that Azarenka elevated her game when the match reached its’ crucible, there was also no denying that Ana was greatly responsible for her own demise.
The conclusion that was most illustrative concerning Azarenka’s 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 victory was that she was clearly mentally tougher than Ivanovic. While Ana shrunk in crisis, Azarenka didn’t seem fazed when the pressure got ratcheted up.
Confident she was psychologically stronger, Azarenka upped her intensity to test whether Ivanovic possessed adequate pushback to stay in the match. Alas, Ivanovic was found wanting. It was then just a matter of time before Ana gave in and gave out which she soon did.
Currently ranked 15th in the world, if Ivanovic is to ever become truly elite again, she must conquer the inner demons that plague her. She must start banishing uncertainty, doubt and hesitation from her mind.
Physically, she has the wherewithal to climb back into the top 10 and be a threat in future Grand Slams. I was quite surprised to discover that Ivanovic’s power was comparable to Azarenka’s and that her all-around game was arguably better.
But it was upstairs and in the mind where Azarenka was clearly Ana’s superior. Their match came down to a battle of wills and who exhibited more focus, determination and desire. On those fronts, it was no contest that Azarenka had Ivanovic’s number.
If Ivanovic is serious about being special again, if her goal is to be considered among the best, she’ll need to really toughen up. She must learn to adopt more of a warrior’s mentality.
Moreover, the Serb will need to somehow discover in herself a grit that she now lacks. Her concentration must also be intensified so that she no longer falls prey to inexcusable loose shots, lapses and unforced errors.
And finally, she must develope more of a clutch gene that will enable her to win those huge and big points she too often fritters away.
Ana’s already got half the equation working for her. She’s got the beauty part down pat. It’s being more of a beast on court, more of a scrapper and fighter that has eluded her. Should she ever figure that out, she might just have it all. A beauty in appearance and a beast between the lines. Now that’s a combination that’s damn near impossible to beat.
Source: wtatennis.com/home-players-Ana Ivanovic-Victoria Azarenka.