Defending French champion Ana Ivanovic never stops learning, but even a bookworm with an angel’s eyes and a devilish forehand can’t always put into practice what she’s attempting to preach.
As one of the most striking players in tennis history, she might be gracing the covers of men’s and women’s fashion magazines the world over, but she hardly has the personality of a super model. Talking to her, you get the impression that she’s a humanities student at an Ivy League school, thrilled to be delving into the works of Sigmund Freud and Karen Horney.
“It’s amazing the way the mind works,” Ivanovic said. “I’m a very emotional person and even when I’m on court, I always think so much. It’s also great to read about [emotions] and then learn more about them and how they actually function. In some ways, it helps me control my emotions.”
Ivanovic has a super sweet personality, so it’s not often that fans see her lose her temper, but she does boil inside and does get frustrated. Now she’s learning how to identify which emotions are swimming through her head and how to contend with them. “There are a few types of anxiety, so when you’re nervous, what you do to prevent it, or what happens when you get nervous and what kind of emotions are stronger than the others,” she said. “So that’s something I’ve learned, and to also learn how to control it, to go back to your breath or just some little things. But everything is happening [on court] so fast in a blink of an eye. You have to control emotions at that point, and it’s not easy.”
While Ivanovic is bubbly and chatty and has lots of interests, she’s no existentialist who spends days searching for the meaning of life in the cafes of Belgrade’s hippie district. In February, when she met up with her now coach Craig Kardon (an American who coached Martina Navratilova) in Dubai to see if the two would mesh, the two traded personality descriptions. “People who know me say I’m laid back,” Kardon recalled. “Ana said that’s good because I’m laid back too, and her mom and trainer started cracking up and said, ‘You’re not laid back!’ She has the appearance of that and is very nice and laid back in some ways, but when it comes to tennis she’s incredibly intense and wants it all. She wants things done right and thinks a lot about it. We’re trying to get her to think less and try to enjoy the moment and play in it.”
Ivanovic would love to do that, but as Freud would caution her, ridding oneself of a critical super-ego that’s saying she’s underachieving isn’t easy. The bloom is now off the rose and she might well arrive at the French Open — where she’s the defending champ — title-less in ‘09. Now ranked No. 7, she’s significantly fallen off the pace that saw her snare the No. 1 ranking in Paris with a heart stopping semi win over her Serbian rival, Jelena Jankovic, and a final round thumping of Dinara Safina. Since then, she’s been engaged in an exhausting uphill battle, injuring her right thumb and being forced to change her grip, contending with bouts of illness, not knowing whether she should hire a full-time coach or just stick with Adidas’ player development program, getting involved in her public romance with Spanish player Fernando Verdasco and then breaking up with him, and chiding herself for a career that had begun to go awry.
“When you are feeling good about your game you take it for granted,” she told IT. “When things aren’t going so well you get more tense. You want to work and try harder, but it doesn’t come straight away and that was frustrating. Lately I’ve been feeling a lot less pressure from the outside world and I realized that I want to feel that pressure again. It was a pretty tough few months.”
Ivanovic prides herself on being an independent thinker and was blaming herself for everything. She needed a new set of shoulders to lean on because she felt overwhelmed. So she went in search of a full time coach, who would give her a new plan and structure and take some responsibility off her very full plate. And voila, she found Kardon, who is a noted motivator and has a keen eye for strategy. They have the same idea as to how her game should be developing, which means closing out points faster. He’s direct and clearly tells her when she’s doing things right and wrong. They’ve been focusing on repetition, which is critical for her, especially since this year, she’s often lost focus as she tried to play points in too many different ways.
In her third round loss to Alisa Kleybanova at the Aussie Open, she’d hit two good shots, and then find herself pulling back and not committing enough. She left the tournament disappointed, realizing that she was giving up too much of the center of the court. She had her best tournament of the year at Indian Wells, reaching the final before she fell in near hurricane conditions to Vera Zvonareva. Then she lost early in Miami to Agnes Szavay, helped Serbia qualify for the Fed Cup World Group for the first time, and in Rome gave up a 4-0 lead in the third set to Aga Radwanska. Kardon says she needs to find a comfort zone and cannot afford to be riddled with anxiety, “She was in bad spot after the Australian. Her confidence was low, but she’s regaining it and has made improvements. She’s feeling good, but she’s lacking matches to prove it. She has to trust her game and handle her feelings, rather than have her feeling handle her game.”
One of the 21-year-old’s biggest problems has been her in inability to leave her career in the locker room. She was thinking about tennis way too much — before sleeping, at meals, in practice and sometimes by match time, her brain was sick of it. “It gets to the point where it’s too much and you need to have the balance to be able to switch it off,” she said. “Ever since I became No. 1, I thought, ‘Now I have to improve more because I have to stay here. What else can I do to improve?’ It began to be a habit. At night I would lie in bed and think about my game. I got to the point when I was on court that I felt I needed to get away from tennis a little. I needed to switch off …[Then] I would and I would feel guilty, that I was cheating and not doing enough. I’m still young and learning but sometimes I want everything now.”
Instead of breaking down the Xs and Os while talking to her pillow, Ivanovic is trying to teach herself to redirect her mind, which Kardon said is critical, as the more relaxed she is off court, the better she performs on court.
Ivanovic recently read “The Art of Happiness,” by Dalai Lama and has learned to imagine lying on the beach in the sun before resting, rather than brooding on how to chase down drop shots. “I was putting in the hard work and the results weren’t there and I thought I was doing everything right and it wasn’t going right,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist and I got down on myself and started judging myself more than other people judged me. I was suffering a lot. But I know I can be happy.” She has entered that critical stage in her career where she has to prove that her maiden run to her first Slam title was no fluke, that she can push herself to become a dominating player. Her results have been borderline poor, unbecoming of a player with such a tremendous upside. After her coming out party in Paris, she’s won just one medium sized title (‘08 Linz), and has beaten just two top 10 players. Of her notable foes, she’s taken losses to Jankovic, to both Williams sisters, to Nadia Petrova, Amelie Mauresmo and recently to top 10ers Zvonareva and Radwanska.
She’s simply not establishing her game like she did in the first part of ‘08, when she would skip around inside the baseline and launch killer, unreachable forehands to the corners. She has the most effective inside-out forehand in WTA history and arguably the best forehand in the game along with Serena and Sania Mirza. “Its one of the best shots in tennis,” Kardon said. “It’s natural, powerful and she has the right feel. She knows which spins to use, can produce short angles, go corner to corner and it really doesn’t matter if the other player knows it’s coming because it’s such a great shot.”
But the consistency she showed off her solid backhand side has gone away, her first serve is no longer threatening and her second serve lacks bite and kick. She has the best hands at net of any of the younger set, but she’s often hesitant at approaching the cords, even though it’s there where she might make a prosperous living over the next decade. She’s been scuffling, trying to rediscover the zeal that briefly brought her to No. 1, perhaps prematurely given that she’s a late bloomer. “At times she wants it too bad and if she doesn’t she gets frustrated,” Kardon said. “She’s getting better at it and that comes with maturity. She’s done a lot for someone her age and her game will continue to grow. Her serve has gotten better, her returns have really picked up, and she’s feeling more comfortable about coming forward. Her first serve should become more of a weapon, but her toss goes off. It’s become a shadow with her and a [bad] habit.”
The Serbian’s mind appears to be wandering on court, perhaps because she lost a little clarity off court, not allowing herself enough mental breaks and obsessing about her tennis, even when she should be taking breaks. If you look closely at Ivanovic’s history, there are plenty of matches that she has gutted out when she hasn’t been clicking. But those types of wins haven’t been as frequent recently and she realizes that as pretty as she is, she’s going to have to take a page from Nadal’s book and win ugly most of the time. As Kardon says, some player are always “looking for that magic carrot, that uh-huh idea when they really just need to trust what they have.”
Ivanovic says she’s pushing back her perfectionist side and realizes much of winning is being mentally stronger than her foes. “You just have to sort of get through the tough days.” There are likely more difficult days ahead, but it would be altogether stunning if she didn’t regain control of her game, rejoin the top five and be a consistent threat at the Slams. She’s already proven that she’s not “too nice to win a major,” and she’s an ambitious, goal-orientated person who won’t be satisfied hanging around the edges of the top 10. “Champions are never satisfied when they lose and she’s a champion,” Kardon said. “There are a lot of great players in the top five who could break through and dominate if they can put it together. Ana is right there in that group.”
Now the question she’ll have to answer is whether she can display the same type of gutsy play that allowed her to come back from a break down against Jankovic on Court Philip Chatrier last year and seize control of the tournament. “I’m sure the nerves will be there, but that’s a privilege too,” Kardon said. “You choose to be a pro and your goal of winning a Slam is one of them. If she can look at it that way, maybe it will take the pressure off of her.”