Ana Ivanovic enjoying upswing
There was a time not so long ago when people concluded that Ana Ivanovic's tennis game was lost and never coming back, the 2008 French Open champion banished to a land of forgotten one-time Grand Slam wonders like Anastasia Myskina and Gaston Gaudio.
Those two each won the French Open in 2004, but even the most ardent tennis fans outside Roland Garros would be hard-pressed to retrieve their names in a trivia contest.
Not so with Ivanovic.
"I'm still here because I truly believe I can win another Grand Slam," Ivanovic said by phone from Rome on Saturday, after a three-set loss to eventual champion Serena Williams in the semifinals of the Italian Open. "I still have that drive and determination. It's what I think of every night when I go to sleep.
"Even though I've been here for a while, I'm still inspired."
Ranked No. 12 in the world, Ivanovic is within striking distance of the top 10 for the first time since 2009 as the French Open begins on Sunday.
"We'll see what happens at the French, but I love her story," said Chris Evert, who is marking the 40th anniversary of her first win at Roland Garros, the first of her 18 majors. "She won it, took a dive, but kept her nose to the grindstone and tried to dig herself out of the hole she was in, and she has now."
That the Serbian-born 26-year-old has never left the tennis public's consciousness is a testament not just to the fact that she actually occupied the No. 1 spot in the game (for 12 weeks in '08), but to the fact that she never entirely allowed us to forget her.
Her stunning looks and graciousness on and off the court helped. But so, too, did the fact that after falling out of the top 20 in 2009 and to No. 65 in summer 2010 -- and failing to make a quarterfinal in 17 straight Grand Slam tournaments after her French title -- there were still glimmers of hope.
There was a semifinal berth in Rome in 2010 and a return to the top 20, along with a US Open quarterfinal appearance in 2012, where she lost to Williams, the eventual champion.
But problems with her serve persisted, the beautiful forehand was no longer enough and the "whatever happened to?" cries persisted.
"Her forehand was one of the greatest shots in women's tennis for a year or two, and still can be one of the best forehands in the game," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "But when your confidence slides, your great weapons slide, and her woes on her serve affected all of her shots."
Confidence, Ivanovic readily admits, has been an issue since she prevailed at Roland Garros as a 20-year-old.
"I appreciated it all very much. It was thrilling and something I could never forget," she said. "But because I'm an introverted person, I found it hard to be in the middle of all the attention. At 20, it was overwhelming for me to deal with all of that at the time. It was too much. Then the pressure came because I'm a perfectionist.
"To that point, I was used to getting results. But then the pressure came and if I was in a tournament, I had to win. It was all new for me and I couldn't deal with it."
As she looks back, Ivanovic said those around her also lacked experience "so maybe they didn't guide me as well. I always blame myself, but I needed help and guidance and I tried to do everything myself, which was too much."
It took a while to find her way again.
"I think the hard times make you learn about yourself the most," she said. "When you're 20, you don't know yourself. I didn't know what I like, what I want, what I don't want. It takes time to develop."
Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova, winner of 59 Grand Slam trophies, saw the maturation arc and recognized it.
"She almost won a Grand Slam before her time," said Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst. "She was such a superstar really quickly. She's amazingly beautiful and such a nice woman, but it was too much.
"She's pretty shy; it's easier for an extrovert. I can relate to that. It can become so overwhelming because it's so much more than hitting a tennis ball. The eyes of the tennis world were on Serbia with Ana, [Jelena] Jankovic, [Novak] Djokovic, and she had a hard time dealing with that. Then she got the yips on her toss and it all went south for her."
Following a second-round loss at Wimbledon last year, Ivanovic began to make the small turn northward after she split with her coach of two years, Nigel Sears, and started traveling with an all-Serbian team of hitting partner Nemanja Kontic, who would later be named her coach, and fitness trainer Zlatko Novkovic.
It was the latest in a long line of changes for Ivanovic, who had previously worked with Zoltan Kuharszky, David Taylor, Craig Kardon, Heinz Gunthardt and Antonio van Grichen. She also occasionally worked with adidas player development coaches Sven Groeneveld and Darren Cahill.
But Ivanovic said she feels as relaxed as she has felt on the court in a long time, and her results are evidence of that: a title at the ASB Classic in Auckland to start the year, followed by a fourth-round upset over Williams, the No. 1 seed and five-time champion, at the Australian Open before losing in the quarterfinals to Eugenie Bouchard.
"It has made a big difference because it's the first time I have a coaching team from my own country, and I feel they understand me better," Ivanovic said. "I get better communication from them, they're young and enthusiastic and supportive, so that puts me in a good mood and gets me excited to play."
Since the Australian Open, Ivanovic won her second title of the year at the Monterrey Open, beating Caroline Wozniacki in the semis and fellow Serbian Jovana Jaksic in the final. She also reached the final in Stuttgart and the quarters in Madrid before losing to Williams in the semis in Rome.
"I'm so impressed with how she's playing," said Evert, an ESPN analyst. "I've been watching her the last few weeks and she seems to be getting her serve together and winning points with it. Her backhand is improved, [along with] her confidence. She's a big hitter, and when I look at the top four now -- Serena, Li Na, [Agnieszka] Radwanska and [Simona] Halep -- Ana could be top four if she continues her run."
Ivanovic said she is "very happy" with her season so far.
"It's a lot of matches for me and a lot of wins [30-8 going into the French], which has given me a lot of confidence," she said. "Also, to have two titles is a great way to help me reach my goal this year, which is to get to the top eight.
"Probably since 2008, this is the most confidence I've felt. Also, I've improved my volleys and overall game a lot, which is exciting. I know I can improve more and I still have to work hard and be more consistent, but these are definitely huge steps."
Steps that are being heard throughout tennis.
"I was wondering if she was done, if she would ever get the right mentality back," Navratilova said. "But she's determined and all the more power to her. She clearly loves the sport, loves to compete and maybe this is a turning point.
"It looks to me like she wants to be on the court. Before she was worried or embarrassed if she lost, and it's difficult once you go into a shell to come out. But now she's just playing the game."
Shriver said she could see Ivanovic getting back to the middle of the top 10.
"If she's a little more consistent, gets a little more power on her backhand, shores up her serve a little more and stays healthy, I can see it," Shriver said. "But her forehand has to be a feared shot match in and match out, and not just when she's playing her best tennis.
"I sort of have trouble envisioning her at the top again for a variety of reasons. However, if you hang around long enough in women's tennis, I really believe like in '08 when she capitalized ... there are going to be some opportunities again."
Regardless of how her game has been going, Ivanovic has stayed in the public eye with endorsements -- her total earnings of $7 million last year made her the ninth-highest paid female athlete in 2013, according to the Forbes list -- and boyfriends who have included Masters champion Adam Scott and tennis player Fernando Verdasco.
Now, Ivanovic said, it is all about rediscovering the joy of the sport.
"I started to play tennis because the game for me was fun and for some periods a few years ago, I did lose sight of that a little," she said. "But now I'm seeing the game again and it's much more enjoyable."
With her new team experiencing their first time on tour, Ivanovic said "it makes me feel like it's my first time" and she will try to bring that feeling to the French Open, where she has not advanced past the fourth round since '08.
"It brings back very special feelings every time I step on court there," she said. "Because I enjoy it so much, I always put pressure on myself to do well, and I've struggled a little bit the last few years.
"Now I have a fresh approach and I'm going to enjoy every moment and approach it like I'm a kid again, like a game, and not stress over my expectations and my ambitions."