Friday, September 1, 2006 Updated: September 2, 11:35 AM ET
Ivanovic major obstacle for Serena
By Bonnie DeSimone Special to ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Four years ago, on her way to her first U.S. Open junior tournament, Ana Ivanovic spotted Russia's Marat Safin on an airport concourse and asked the 2000 Open champion to pose for a photo with her.
She still has the snapshot, but the 17th-seeded Ivanovic is no longer a star-struck neophyte. She's playing her former idols, and more than holding her own. Two Mondays ago, she drubbed Martina Hingis in the final in Montreal to win her first big tournament (she also won an Australian Open tuneup in 2005), taking Hingis apart in a match that lasted less than an hour.
Despite a slow start against Daniela Hantuchova, Serena Williams has yet to lose a set through two rounds.
"She saw Hingis win a lot of those Grand Slams as a kid, so for her to mentally be able to put herself in such a calm position throughout the whole match and deal with the emotion of winning such a big match was a huge step," said her coach, Australian David Taylor. "Ana's a player who's always had two or three great wins a week, but never five or six to win a tournament. Winning a title, there's a real permanence about it. That's helped her a lot."
The slender 6-foot Serbian is preparing to take on her second multiple Grand Slam winner in as many weeks -- Serena Williams, who appears to be fit and primed for a U.S. Open run, and can likely count on vocal crowd support in her third-round match. The two have never played.
"I had a kind of a tough draw, but when I saw the direction, I was really looking forward to that match," Ivanovic said. "It's going to be tough. She plays so fast."
But Ivanovic doesn't intend to play defensively. "The more I come into the net, the less time I give her to run and make a good shot," she said.
Ivanovic has a habit of narrowing her eyes into an intense squint as she sways on the baseline, awaiting her opponent's serve. It's symbolic of her growing ability to focus point-by-point, reducing her world to the present moment rather than allowing emotion to derail her.
She's progressed spectacularly fast in less than two years on the women's tour, starting unranked in early 2004 and rising to a career-high No. 17. She has twice defeated current No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo -- upending her last year in the third round of the French Open -- and also reached the quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Miami.
Taylor, the Aussie Fed Cup coach who has worked with Ivanovic since earlier this year, said one of his biggest challenges is saving her from her own enthusiasm. She spent a month this winter in Australia, where she has extended family.
"She's obviously familiar with a lot of our colloquialisms and the culture we have is quite a relaxed culture," Taylor said. "That fits in well with her. She sometimes gets too motivated and it's good for her to relax a little bit.
"You have to hold her back a lot. We started out doing fitness for two weeks, three sessions a day. I expected by October she'd be able to go longer in tournaments without having fatigue. She's a bit ahead of where I thought she'd be.
"Things change quickly and I think for her, she really believes she's one of the better girls. Having a sense of belonging is a big thing."
Ivanovic was born precocious. She clearly recalls watching fellow Serbian Monica Seles on television when she was 5 years old and writing down the phone number of a tennis school that was advertised during a commercial break in the match. She pestered her parents, a lawyer and an economist, until they enrolled her.
Ivanovic takes an eight-match win streak into the third round against Serena Williams.
Her recent success could make her the object of a bidding war between two tennis federations.
Ivanovic plays under the flag of Serbia and Montenegro, the conjoined republics that were part of the former Yugoslavia. In May, the citizens of Montenegro voted to separate from Serbia. Ivanovic and other players, including 20th-ranked Jelena Jankovic and, on the men's side, No. 23 Novak Djokovic, have until the end of the year to decide which country they want to represent.
"Each federation wants all of us to play for them," said Ivanovic. She has split loyalties -- her father was born in Montenegro and she grew up in Belgrade -- and has yet to choose between them.
She'll only up the ante if she's able to handle Williams.
Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.