REMEMBERING ANA IVANOVIC – TENNIS' MOST BLESSED AND CURSED PLAYER

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Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

By Bill Simons

Our piece from last year pretty much catches the triumphs and flaws of the singular Serb who just retired.

MELBOURNE, Australia—Could it possibly be?

Could Ana Ivanovic be both the most blessed and the most cursed female star in tennis?

After all, you wouldn’t be all that wet if you claimed that she sports one of the more poignant back stories around. (As a kid, during frigid winters she played in an empty pool as war planes flew above.)

Certainly, Ivanovic is one of the smartest and most well-read players in tennis. Want to have a little chit-chat about Freud and his conceits? Well, just sit down with Ms. Ana. Plus, few in tennis are more caring. She’s donated bundles to the “Schools Without Violence” program, was a UNICEF ambassador, and won the US State department’s International Women of Courage Award.

And, lest we forget, the gorgeous Serb is one of the most beautiful women in all of sports. So no, it was hardly shocking that actor Josh Hartnett said that the person he would most want to be stranded on a desert island with was Ana.

Naturally, when a wide-eyed 20-year-old Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, many assumed she  would become the game’s next great thing. Around that time Justin Gimelstob said, “I hope after she wins a host of Grand Slams, has websites dedicated to her and is endorsing everything from toothpaste to orange juice, she will still smile just as innocently.”

Right after her French win, thousands poured out onto the streets of Belgrade to celebrate, and she gushed, “This moment will not be equaled.”

She was right.

A few weeks after her singular Paris win, Ana was bounced out of Wimbledon by Jie Zheng, ranked No. 133 in the world at the time. Commentator Tracy Austin noted, “She’s just won the French; just became No. 1 in the world and that’s a lot to handle when it is all new. Suddenly you are the hunted and not the hunter. It’s a huge difference.”

And there was another difference—time and again Ana fell short. In fact, since winning the 2008 French Open she’s reached just two Grand Slam quarterfinals—at the US Open in 2012, and here in Melbourne last year. She’s suffered tough injuries. She’s gone through myriad coaches and advisers. Time and again it seemed you could almost hear her over-thinking.

She had a baffling propensity for suffering early round losses to no-names—while still ranked No. 1 in 2008, she fell to No. 188 Julie Coin in New York, in what Sports Illustrated deemed one of the biggest upsets in US Open history. Ana’s less-than-average confidence has dipped more often than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and news about her on-court triumphs grew increasingly scarce.

Yes, fans relished all those magazine covers. Her customized Christmas cards are still more popular than Rudolf. Her femme fist-pumps delight those who delight in the details. Her rivalry with her fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic was once an ongoing, tit-for-tat soap opera and she had a slew curious interactions with that other Euro beauty, Maria Sharapova. A courtside counter with far too much time on his hands once noted that Sharapova “out-grunted” Ana 209-51 in one match, and last year when Sharapova got peeved about a panicky Ivanovic injury timeout, she went on to joke that all players should be fined $2,500 when they stop a match to get medical help.

Of course, to many, Ana’s struggles have been no joke. Reading the many Ivanovic tea-leaves has long been a compelling exercise.

Ana once recalled, “There were a few of those [difficult] moments. It’s very hard, because I’m still a little bit shy—it was very overwhelming, all the success and attention I had. I wanted to get away … and then when I was away, I didn’t want that. I wanted to still work hard … [It was] not the best place in my mind. But you keep fighting because this is what I love to do and this is what I’m best at. I still am so young and I deserve a better chance and better shot at it.”

Ana tried to subdue her demons. “In the past,” she said, “I listened too much to what people were saying, what they thought was good for me. I didn’t really listen to my inner instincts, or what my gut was telling me. This time I really thought, this is my career and I have to turn towards me and just see what works out for me.”

So Ana soldiered on—even powered forward. Though hardly a spear carrier, she’s won 15 titles, earned over $13 million, and been in the top twenty for eight of the last ten years. A year ago she was the toast of Melbourne when, in the fourth round, she deposed five-time Aussie Open champ Serena Williams.

Long a fave Down Under, where she has family, Ana reached the final of the season-opener in Brisbane. As the No. 5 seed, she was a trendy long shot for the title. She exuded confidence, saying, “I feel I’m ready for the next step.”

Then she fell.

For the fifth time in her career, she lost in the first round of a Slam. This time to Lucie Hradecka, ranked No. 142.

Never mind that her Czech opponent—though now boasting a 3-2 record against top 5 players – had never gotten past the second round in a Slam, and had only played three singles tournaments last year. After Hradecka’s 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 win, a brave reporter asked Ana, “Are you surprised that the nerves still play such a big role?”

“I think it will always do,” responded the Serb. “You just have to accept that you’re going to have tough days and you [have] got to go through tough days to improve. I’m such a perfectionist and sometimes I judge myself too much.”

You might say so.

After all, when asked how disappointed she was with her defeat, the gorgeous, wealthy, smart and giving athlete who yes, might be the most blessed and cursed tennis star around, said without blinking that her loss “was probably the worst thing that could happen.”