One of the biggest questions in women's tennis these days isn't a very pleasant one: How much worse can things get for Ana Ivanovic?
The 22-year-old Serbian had the world eating out of her hand as little as 18 months ago before a horrific tailspin, and just when it seemed like it couldn't get any worse (she lost to Gisela Dulko in the second round of the Australian Open), it did. Ivanovic, a former No. 1 and French Open champion of 2008, was so unimpressive in Fed Cup this past weekend that you almost wanted to turn your eyes away.
Fed Cup may not be the most high-value target for a player, but it's a resonant event in a small, proud, success-hungry nation like Serbia. And that's where Ivanovic almost single-handedly lost the tie to Russia before some 10,000 mortified hometown fans. To make matters worse, her frenemy, Jelena Jankovic, another former No. 1 who's struggled, if not nearly as fruitlessly, had Ivanovic all setup to be a hero on two occasions. That's no mean feat in a five-match Fed Cup tie.
Ivanovic lost the first match of the Fed Cup tie to Svetlana Kuznetsova. There was no shame in that, although getting just one game in the first set and losing 6-4 in the second added up to a blowout. Jankovic came through in the second and third matches for Serbia, stepping up to beat Alisa Kleybanova and Kuznetsova in back-to-back three-setters that left Ivanovic in position to clinch the tie with a win over Kleybanova.
Ivanovic lost that one, 6-3, 6-3.
Well, there was still the tie-closing decisive doubles, featuring the four singles players. Apparently, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev sensed that seeing Kuzzie and Klebs again might seriously disrupt Ivanovic's resolve in a way that sending in fresh troops would not. About that, he appeared to be right. Ivanovic played poorly and the Serbs, despite being at home on the surface of their choice (indoor hardcourts), were beaten pretty savagely, 6-1, 6-4.
Fed Cup may not mean as much as most tour events, but you know that Ivanovic will feel the pain of this one for some time to come. She not only faces the tough task of getting somewhere (anywhere) back into the mix near the top (she's currently No. 23, a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented drop for someone who won a major and reached the No. 1 ranking in June of 2008). She must also win back the heart of Serbia. That, at least, will be a far easier task; when you fall far enough, there's a measure of sympathy accorded for slumping.
Ivanovic's biggest problem appears to be a loss of confidence. You could see it on numerous occasions last year, and most especially when she handled the service toss as though she were being asked to hit a live hand grenade instead of a tennis ball. Along the way, she also lost many matches that she seemed to be in a position to win. But when it came to closing the deal with strong, confident, aggressive play, she retreated and developed a case of what the golfing crowed calls "the yips."
The thing that has been missing from Ivanovic's game is that firm, steady hand that guided her to a major title at Roland Garros -- a degree of focus and free-flowing shotmaking that reminded many observers of Chris Evert. Ivanovic was never explosive (like a Serena Williams), overpowering (like a Kim Clijsters) or particularly artful (like Justine Henin). She won because she remained precise, modulated and cool.
It's not that far from cold to frozen, and that's just what her problem is now: competitive paralysis. You can only hope that she's one of those players who needs to hit rock bottom before she can start back up. It would be hard for her to sink lower than she did this weekend. I'm glad that spring, the season during which she's done well in the past, is just around the corner.