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Pressure is a #Process: The Ana Ivanovic Story

Ana Ivanovic has had plenty to celebrate in 2014. Photo: Christopher Levy.

Ana Ivanovic has had plenty to celebrate in 2014. Photo: Christopher Levy.

By Andrew Eccles

In 2014, no WTA player won more matches than Ana Ivanovic. With a record of 58-17, the resurgent Serb and former world No. 1 has had the winningest year of her career despite only having progressed past the third round of one Grand Slam. She finishes the year ranked fifth, not far from her highest year-end ranking of No. 4 in 2007, and equalling that of 2008 – the year she was occasional world number 1, and French Open champion.

So where has Ivanovic been since the heady days of 2008? And why has it taken six years for her to rediscover her talent? Her career path is a fascinating one, and it is my opinion that her attitude towards the game is deserving of more respect than she is afforded.

Let’s take a look at Ana Ivanovic, and “the process” of returning to the highest levels of the game.

 “I was young. I wanted it so much. That was the only way for me to do it.”

When Ana Ivanovic reached her first major final at the 2007 French Open, she was a mere 19 years old. A year later, she would return to defeat Dinara Safina in straight sets, clinching her first – and so far only – Grand Slam title.

Ivanovic’s rise had been swift. Her major campaigns had the feel of a military maneuver: get in, complete the mission, and then retreat quickly. Her record from Roland Garros ’07 to Roland Garros ’08: F, SF, 4R, F, W. With the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen held aloft, it was easy to feel that the mission was complete. She was the new World number 1, and consistently great enough to have really earned it.

Then, the retreat; and what a quick retreat it was.

From that moment on, Ivanovic spent the second half of the season flailing under the pressure, swapping the top spot with compatriot Jelena Jankovic. By the end of 2008, she was ranked No. 5 – one place lower than she had been in January. By the end of 2009, she had dropped down to No. 22, and would remain stuck around that ranking until improvements slowly began to yield results in 2012.

It took 18 Grand Slam appearances since her victory at the French Open for Ivanovic to finally reach another major quarterfinal; such was the ferocity of the demons that haunted her in the years after her swift ascension.

Ivanovic is philosophical about her struggle, and has been refreshingly candid about her experiences as a player.

“You get to a point where you say ‘okay this is great, but there is so much more to life. I have no friends’. […] I think you can be successful and still have a nice dinner.”

Maria Sharapova may have infamously suggested she “check her blood pressure” in their Cincinnati epic, but Ivanovic has, in fact, maintained a relatively clean bill of health during the 2014 season. The answers are there in Ivanovic’s reflections: a happier Ana is a more effective Ana. Where before she was driven by the unquenchable hunger of youth, she is now more comfortable to be driven by a learned serenity.

Confidence helps too.

Although her Grand Slam appearances haven’t been overwhelming since the Australian Open, one can’t help but think her first-ever victory over Serena Williams in the round of 16 has been a (if not the) major force behind her successful season. No matter the asterisks you might want to put on that match – given the top seed’s back injury –  it was an undeniable boost to the Ivanovic psyche. There was no shame in her loss in the next round to young Eugenie Bouchard – Ivanovic had the most tour wins this year, but Bouchard notched the most Slam victories. The win over Williams – and its after-effects – has lived within the Serb in every big match she’s played this year.

The Ivanovic forehand remains the former No. 1's bread and butter shot. Photo: Christopher Levy

The Ivanovic forehand remains the former No. 1’s bread and butter shot. Photo: Christopher Levy

It was with her when she became the first and only player to defeat Sharapova on clay, taking out the firm favourite in Rome. It was with her when she defeated her Russian nemesis again that summer, in easily one of the most entertaining and hard fought encounters of the year. Ivanovic had no right to win that match after surrendering an ostensibly unassailable lead, but she somehow managed to out-grit the fiercest competitor in the sport.

Two years ago, she would have buckled.

A year ago, she would have wilted.

Ivanovic is a player of great calibre. When ranked among the Top 30 in any sport and still described as “struggling” – that’s a sign that you’re a real talent. The talent never went away. It was always there, just under the surface, bubbling strongly enough to keep her relevant. But now we see an Ivanovic who is more willing to forge the weapon.

“It’s a process. Obviously, things don’t happen overnight, but I’m proud. […] The hardest thing to do is to take action. But it’s the only way forward.”

Ivanovic is no longer along for the ride her talent provides, something she could once afford when she was younger, and everything was excitement and brilliance and ecstatic victory. That rarely lasts. Take Williams, for example; the struggle for victory is etched on her face more than ever – the years of experience make winning harder, because you lose your ignorant bliss. Suddenly you see old patterns, you recognize your weaknesses, you see the incredible strengths of your opponent. The more time you spend on court, the more you know your own mortality.

Champions overcome. Ivanovic has slowly learned to accept that it won’t always be fun, exciting, and ecstatic. That she has to win through frustration and fear. That she has to walk away from tournaments defeated as a competitor, but not as a person.

She seems to understand this now.

First a mantra, then a mocking meme,”It’s a process” is finally yielding real results. In 2014, Ana Ivanovic is again one of the five best players in the world, trailing a field far more competitive than that of her days at the forefront of the game. And she is challenging those ahead of her.

We can’t know what 2015 holds for anyone at highest echelons of the WTA – we are in a time of great talent, and great change. The bar has been raised, and the women are lifting their game accordingly.

Ivanovic is right there in the mix thanks to her enduring determination, thanks to her new found perspective, and thanks to her process.

 

Full interview with Sky Sports here.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!

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