After her resurgence in 2014, Ana Ivanovic hit a number of stumbling blocks this season. While she reached her best result at a major with a semifinal showing at Roland Garros, 2015 was also been a year with setbacks due to injuries, early losses and revolving doors in her coaching setup. In Luxembourg, René Denfeld sat down with the (now) 28-year-old and talked changes in her life, her team as well as lessons learned and goals for the future.
Ana Ivanovic never explicitly mentioned the word “balance” during her final tournament of the year at the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open — yet it feels like the word has been a common thread running through the 2015 season where she has been looking to find the right balance: of setting up her team, her workload at this point in her career and her life.
“I think that’s what affects it a little bit —,” she paused. “No, the most actually, [are] all the changes: trying to set up the right team and right workload because obviously it varies at the time of the season and the time in your career.”
Ivanovic’s climb to the top of the rankings and French Open victory at the age of 21 has been well documented — and her regression and struggle to recapture the magic of 2007 and 2008 in subsequent years maybe even more so. So where does 2015 — a title-less season with a 28-19 overall record — sit in the career of Ana Ivanovic?
A letdown after the return to the Top 10 in 2014? A step back? Or, perhaps, a transitional year — taking a step back to move several steps forward?
“This year was really up and down and emotional as well,” Ivanovic reflected. “I had great success in Paris but I was a little bit disappointed I didn’t qualify for Singapore.”
Ivanovic’s semifinal loss to Timea Bacsinszky in Beijing officially knocked her out of contention for the WTA Finals, making her unable to repeat her feat from 2014 due to Luxembourg not counting towards the event. Looking at the bigger picture, however, the last few weeks of the season weren’t where the Serb missed out on a ticket to Singapore. Trouble arose at the beginning of the season when Ivanovic lost her first round match against Lucie Hradecka in Melbourne — a little over a week after she pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets in the finals of Brisbane in a high-quality match.
“Just two days before the Australian Open, I broke my toe and that was really a big setback for me because I couldn’t practice for three weeks,” Ivanovic said. “Of course, your form drops a lot, and then it was always trying to play catch-up.”
The difficulty to catch up was all too evident as the tour moved to the hard courts in the Middle East and North America. The Serb fell early in many tournaments, with the exception of Monterrey — where she lost in the semifinals at the hands of her spring kryptonite, Caroline Garcia. It wasn’t until April that Ivanovic resumed training pain-free, and won consecutive matches for the first time in two months in Madrid.
“The thing was, I didn’t know it was broken at the time of the [Hradecka] match, so I played because the doctors said, ‘Look, there’s nothing you can do — you can either try or not’,” she recalled. “Of course, I don’t like to quit, so I wanted to give it a try but when I went back home, it was not coming down. After five days, I had a scan and it was broken and the doctors were like, ‘How could you even think about playing?'”
Would she ever think about playing through something similar again?
“No, no chance,” Ivanovic said with a rueful smile. “Unfortunately, many times, you learn the hard way.”
Throughout most of 2014, it was Ivanovic’s fitness that helped her play a heavy tournament schedule as she amassed the most match wins (58) and titles (4) of her career during one season. With an early injury in January 2015, however, Ivanovic often didn’t quite have the same ease of movement and zippiness on-court that successfully allowed her to go for her shots in the previous year, leaving her off-balance — not just figuratively.
“[Movement and fitness] is a big part of my game because I have a very aggressive game and in order to execute the shots the right way I have to be in position,” she summarized. “Many times throughout this year, I felt I couldn’t really do that and I couldn’t put myself in the right position.”
She explained that time was scarce during the second half of 2015 to include a long training block, that it was almost a little like patching things together bit by bit.
“I feel like all parts of my game have been improving. It’s a bit like I said in Beijing: it’s unfortunate that my kind of best form came towards the end of the season, but it’s also incentive for 2016 and what’s coming and I just have to get my body in shape.”
Over the course of this year, Ivanovic’s team has undergone a whole transformation. The Serb had been working with compatriots Nemanja Kontic and then Dejan Petrovic throughout most of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. Beginning this summer, both Petrovic and fitness coach Zlatko Novkovic were replaced by a familiar face in Nigel Sears, who had previously worked with the former World No. 1 between July 2011 and July 2013. New additions are Sears’ fellow Brits Howard Green, her new fitness coach, and Andrew Bettles, her hitting partner.
“Now, I really feel like I’m setting up the right team around me,” Ivanovic said. “I have a new fitness coach, sparring partner and physio traveling with me; I feel like all the areas are covered, so I’m really excited about the next season. That’s why it’s very important for me to have a good offseason now and get that basic preparation and fitness.”
With everything ostensibly poised for the Serb to aim for a more consistent year on court in 2016, she’s also likely to remain in the spotlight away from the court — yes, she is in one of sports’ most high-profile relationships with Bastian Schweinsteiger, captain of the German national football team, but Ivanovic has been a household name in the game for almost a decade now.
The Serb is the first to admit that it took her a while to get used to the fame that came along with her on-court success, and how the spotlight probably won’t ever sit entirely comfortably with her.
“Yeah, I wish for [a more private life] sometimes, especially during the time off,” Ivanovic admitted. “Tournaments are different; I mean, you have commitments and that’s what you’re there for but during the down time I really appreciate it when I can go for a ride on the bike, a walk in the park — you know, the normal things in life.”
Compared to her breakout seasons in 2007 and 2008, however, Ivanovic now has a different perspective on life as a well-known athlete away from the court and the attention that comes along with it.
“Yeah, definitely, I think you perceive it differently. I don’t think you ever get used to it but you just handle it differently; the best way is just not to pay attention and that’s what I try to do.”
“One time, I nearly got hit by a tram, trying to avoid the press–,” she said, and with an almost sarcastic chuckle, added, “– that wouldn’t have been good!”
After her run in Luxembourg was cut short by big-hitting Alison Van Uytvanck in the second round, the Serb said she had been feeling a blockage in her back since the end of the WTA’s Asian swing. As a result, the World No. 16 decided not to compete at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, giving her body time to recuperate instead. During the offseason, Ivanovic will be one of many players taking part in the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) for a second year — this time swinging her racket for the UAE Royals.
“[IPTL] was really exciting last year,” she said. “It was different to be part of a team. It’s so special for us, so I’m looking forward to that and this year I’ll play a little bit shorter, which is also I think good but I’m excited.”
The IPTL is full of promotional gimmicks — including shot clocks, time outs, player substitutions and Happiness Power Points — but asked whether she’d expand upon last year’s foray into work as a flight attendant, Ivanovic laughed, “We might have to come up with something new!”
The Serb is aiming high for 2016 and didn’t beat about the bush very much when it comes to her goals for the next year. Like many other tennis players, there’s one event the veteran is particularly excited about.
“Obviously, the Olympics are my dream, especially being held in Rio — that’s definitely been high on my list for a while,” she said. “It’s always been my dream to go there as well.”
In looking ahead to her second Olympics, Ivanovic leaving it open whether she’d plan on playing in a second event other than singles, while also focusing on the big picture of the tennis calendar.
“That’s a priority, and obviously the Grand Slams as well. I really want to peak for them and hopefully, add one title to my name.”