Sunday 22 April 2018

Rejuvenated Ivanovic intent on restoring reputation

Simon Cambers in Melbourne

ANA IVANOVIC can remember the day things started to go wrong. Playing in her first Grand Slam final at the age of 19, the young Serb had just broken the serve of Justine Henin, the defending champion, in the opening game of the French Open final.

Serving in the next game, everything seemed fine -- but, suddenly, her service action fell apart. With her ball toss all over the place and her nerves shattered, she won only two more games.

As the Belgian celebrated her third straight French Open title, Ivanovic wondered what had happened. "You can probably go back on YouTube and find it," Ivanovic says, the pain of the memory sharp even three-and-a-half years on. "Up until that point, my serve was my biggest weapon but then I could not serve any more the whole match and I got so stressed about it."

Ivanovic can smile about it now, partly because she still managed to win her first Grand Slam title in Paris the following year, but also because, as she prepares for the start of the Australian Open, she is on her way back towards the top.

Ivanovic is intelligent, speaks several languages and, despite being one of the most searched-for sports stars on the internet, is grounded enough to have popped over to London before Christmas to help her younger brother learn English and settle into his flat. "I went shopping and did some cleaning," she says.

Her victory in Paris in 2008 took Ivanovic to the top of the world rankings and perhaps that is where the problems really began. She knew that the only way was down and slowly began to self-destruct.

A string of coaches were hired and fired, a few niggling injuries cost her any momentum she had and she started to doubt herself. Worse still, her serve became a liability and her confidence dissipated.

The lone bright spot was her partnership with a new coach, Heinz Gunthardt, who had helped Steffi Graf dominate the women's game in the 1980s and 1990s. Though her world ranking fell as low as 64 after a first-round loss at Wimbledon, there were improvements behind the scenes and in August, everything changed when she reached the semi-finals of an event in Cincinnati.

"Once we started the summer in the States I just felt a lot different," she says. "I felt more confident, I started with my new fitness coach, I got a lot fitter and that was when the change started to happen. My win over [Victoria] Azarenka in the first round in Cincinnati was the breakthrough match."

Though her partnership with Gunthardt ended because the Swiss did not want to travel full-time, Ivanovic ended a 19-month title drought when she won in Linz last October and went on to win the Tournament of Champions in Bali, a victory that lifted her back into the top 20. At a winter training camp in Majorca she lost five or six kilos and, though a stomach strain during the Hopman Cup in Perth last week cost her a few days of practice, she seems re-energised and full of confidence.

"I can see a lot of positive things happening in my game and I really believe that I can actually win a Grand Slam this year," she says. "That would be my biggest goal and obviously then to get back into the top 10. It's going to be a lot of hard work and it might not happen in a week or a month, but it might. I'm very excited.

"Things are starting to come together, some things that I have worked on in the past few weeks are going well and I'm in really good shape compared to previous years."

"Things are starting to come together, some things that I have worked on in the past few weeks are going well and I'm in really good shape compared to previous years."

If she were to win another Grand Slam title, would it be that much sweeter for all she has had to endure over the past couple of years? I think I would be more emotional," Ivanovic says, laughing as she describes herself as a "black horse" to win the title in Melbourne. I now realise more what it takes because when I won my first Grand Slam everything was falling into place as it should, so then you take certain things for granted.

"It was still very memorable and emotional but the next one will have a little bit more heaviness to it. I'm really looking forward to that moment."


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