It is difficult to discuss Ana Ivanovic. Maybe that is why we do it so often. She has become the Sudoku puzzle of our sport. Strange, when you recall her success was built on that which was so straightforward.
Serve. Forehand. Win.
Some would call her career a Greek tragedy. I see it more like an athletic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. Act I: a rags-to-riches story complete with fairytale ending.
Act II: Reality.
The six years that the Serb has spent caught between past potential and present purgatory surely felt like a protracted wander through the woods. The six months of the 2014 season has yet to signal a complete reemergence, but there is a sense that she is no longer missing the forest for the trees. Two titles and a win over Serena Williams en route to her second major quarterfinal in six years has put Ivanovic within legitimate striking distance of the top 10. She came to Paris, the site of her only major triumph, having taken the American to three sets for a second time in Rome. The perennial early-round upset victim was suddenly tipped to better her Melbourne finish after being given a draw replete with the implosive and inexperienced.
By the third round, reality broke through a fairytale foundation. Ivanovic became an enigma all over again.
It was as if the high bounce bounce of the red clay, the very thing common sense says the Serb needs to fly into her once fearless forehand, betrayed her. It gave everyone too much time. It allowed Czech nemesis Lucie Safarova time to counter Ivanovic’s power with angles and southpaw spin. It allowed spectators and statisticians time to tabulate the Serb’s lengthy losing record on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
It allowed Ana Ivanovic’s long-documented insecurities time to fester and, as the match slipped away from her, feel a certain familiarity in yet another fall.
This time of year has tended to be a respite for both Ivanovic and all those who have ever believed she is a big break away from being “back.” The former French Open champion has typically reserved her poorest play on the lawns of England. Save those misplaced expectations for the summer hard courts, we are told.
But just how poor is the former No. 1 on grass? Or perhaps, why do we speak so dismissively about a surface that could be her savior?
Her run to the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals is historically thought of as an anomaly, but it could easily be an undiscovered clue in the mystery of Ana Ivanovic. The Serb had just made her first major final, suffering a crushing loss to Justine Henin at Roland Garros. Impressive as her fortnight had been, she had been brought back to Earth in a big way by the Belgian. Yet, Ivanovic found the belief to make one major result beget another, beating two top ten players before losing to eventual winner Venus Williams.
Was her game so different then? The Serb will certainly tell you hers is now a more complete arsenal, but the bedrock remains the same.
Serve. Forehand. Win.
The grass courts of Birmingham take away her high bounce, but they gave her something better against Germany’s Mona Barthel. Falling behind an early break, Ivanovic might have found it easy to recall past encounters with Barthel, including one where the German bageled her in the final set, in a slower-paced environment. But the ball did not meander across the court as it might have on clay. Barthel’s shots came in like wrecking balls, with all the subtlety of Miley Cyrus herself.
In a rare moment over the last six years, Ana Ivanovic wasn’t allowed to think.
Playing reactionary tennis, all became clear as the Serb recovered the break and ran away with a 6-4 6-1 decision. She stepped into the court, took initiative, and put away short balls as she did when she saved match points against Nicole Vaidisova seven years ago. Ivanovic will not have the luxury of being on the backfoot regardless of who she plays in the next round; neither Lauren Davis nor Victoria Duval pack Barthel’s manic punch.
But maybe – just maybe – Ivanovic will remember the experience today brought. If the last six years was indeed a process, her match against Mona Barthel was an application. Above all, it was clear that the low bounce need not be a lull for the Serb when it could instead be a valuable lesson.