Ivanovic ends hoodoo as 'soft' Williams toils
Funny how every season starts with chat about Serena Williams doing the calendar grand slam, only for her supporters to beat a chastened retreat when her body breaks down halfway through the Australian Open.
Is it something to do with her winter training schedule (or lack of it)?
Could it be the hostility of the local conditions? As Bill Bryson once wrote of Australia: "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles." Or beaten by Ana Ivanovic in three tight sets.
A fourth-round exit here might not count as "the end of the world", as Williams pointed out, but this was the third year in a row when she had staggered out of the tournament with an injury.
Her ankles were the problem in both 2012 and 2013, and this time it was a locked back, which caused fatal damage to her footwork. On a day of swirling wind, she was constantly reaching for the ball on her backhand side, and regularly walloping it into the net.
"She hurt her back in training," said Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou. "Thirty minutes before the match against (Daniela) Hantuchova (on Friday), she was about to pull out. Then she said, 'I'm going to try to hit one ball'. She hit two balls and said, 'Okay, I'm going to try'. So that one was a miracle. She didn't warm up at all before that match.
"Today she was never coming forward to hit the shots. She was always on the back foot, in a bad position. When you're in a bad position you cannot hit 100pc because then you will miss everywhere. So she was soft today. And Ana was aggressive. She could come in every time and she did it really well."
The Australian Open used to be Williams's banker, a tournament she has won five times. She even came away with the trophy in 2007, a year when she has admitted that she arrived so out of condition that "I was super-thick Moooooo! How did I move so fast?"
Yet since her comeback from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011, her performances here have diminished. While Williams has never turned in a more dominant season than she did last year (win-loss record: 78-4), it almost seems as if this event comes too early for her, before she has established her best rhythm and reacquainted her body with the stresses and strains of life on tour.
Still, even when Williams is not moving fluently, her opponents have to stay in the match both physically and psychologically if they want to beat her -- a lesson that the unfortunate Hantuchova might reflect on after her 6-3, 6-3 defeat on Friday.
Williams was "10 times worse" before that match, according to Mouratoglou, and yet managed to pull through anyway. There were moments when Ivanovic showed similar mental frailty.
She shanked a series of groundstrokes for no good reason, except that the first set was drawing to a climax. As Ivan Lendl always says: "There are plenty of players who can get to 5-5; it's what they do then that matters."
But while Ivanovic's ball-toss has a habit of turning into a softball pitch when she is stressed, she does at least have a grand slam title -- the 2008 French Open -- behind her. For the second half of yesterday's match, she committed herself to thumping her forehand into the corners and scrambling forward like a commando. Had Williams been running at full power, this would have been a kamikaze tactic, but the ball kept floating back with nothing on it, and Ivanovic was able to close out her first victory over Williams (at the fifth attempt): 4-6 6-3 6-3.
"I had to break a spell," said Ivanovic, "and what better place to do it than here against such a champion? I just kept swinging. "Even when I made errors I really believed in it. So to have that victory, it's amazing. When we were starting the match and they were talking about all her grand slam titles, it was quite impressive."
She will now play Canadian prospect Eugenie Bouchard in what is only her second grand slam quarter-final since she was ranked No 1 five years ago.
She can expect the support of the crowd. Not only has Ivanovic long been adopted as an Australian favourite, on the grounds that she has an uncle in Melbourne and used to live with hunky local golfer Adam Scott, but Bouchard ousted local girl Casey Dellacqua.
Novak Djokovic, Ivanovic's fellow Serb, eased into the quarter-finals by crushing Italy's Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-0, 6-2. During his on-court interview after the match Djokovic treated the crowd to an impersonation of the serving style of his new coach, Boris Becker. The German was all smiles as he watched, though he may have been less amused by the world No 2's post-match press conference.
"The first impression, when I've done all the serves, was that he was happy and he was applauding," Djokovic said. "When I said how he is today with his back problems and everything, he was not so happy about that. But it's all for good laughs.
"It's actually the first time after a long time I've done a Becker imitation. I don't know how I was. Was I OK? I'm going to gain few kilos and have to colour my hair in order to do the proper Becker imitation." (© Daily Telegraph, London)