Commentary

Ana Ivanovic finding her groove

Updated: April 25, 2012, 3:05 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Ana Ivanovic has shuffled coaches almost more than David Blaine has reworked a pack of cards in an attempt to find just the right person.

"I have people saying, 'Oh, you know, well done, you've had the same coach for more than six months,'" Ivanovic said in a telephone interview. "It's really hard because they don't really understand what is going on behind the scenes. They just think, 'Oh, you're just emotional, hard to work with and impulsive.'"

Those types of comments still hurt Ivanovic, although not as much as they used to. Far from a hardened veteran, the ever-glamorous Serb turns 25 in November. She's coping better.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty ImagesAna Ivanovic says she's thinking less on the court, which is leading to better results.

And besides, Ivanovic is on to something with her most recent coach, Nigel Sears. A partnership that began last summer is bearing fruit, with Ivanovic this month reaching her highest ranking in three years and recently ending Jelena Jankovic's four-year reign as the top-ranked Serbian woman. Admittedly, Jankovic has slumped and, reportedly, has now turned to Zeljko Krajan, who was part of Dinara Safina's entourage, in a bid to revitalize her career.

One of Ivanovic's goals this year is to qualify for the year-end championships in Istanbul, and she currently sits a respectable 11th.

The progress suggests Ivanovic might once again seriously contend for a Grand Slam title. Ivanovic lifted the trophy at Roland Garros four years ago, only for injuries and a loss of confidence to ruin the rest of 2008 and lead to more woe. She suffered one of the biggest upsets in history, losing to 188th-ranked Julie Coin in the second round of the U.S. Open. The former No. 1 then slipped to No. 63 two years ago.

"I'm actually very excited about where my game is at the moment," said Ivanovic, ranked 15th. "Now to have sort of a consistent year so far, it actually makes me feel really good. My ranking is rising, and I'm slowly getting back to where I want to be. It's very encouraging and inspires me to work harder and harder."

Sears, who formerly led towering Slovak Daniela Hantuchova and diminutive South African Amanda Coetzer, among others, is directing traffic. Ivanovic noted Sears' behavior when he guided Hantuchova, observing that he seemed "very positive" and "very professional."

He left a secure job as head of women's tennis at Great Britain's cash cow, the Lawn Tennis Association, to team with Ivanovic and wasn't the slightest bit nervous about it, even with Ivanovic's penchant for changing coaches. Heinz Gunthardt, who couldn't fully commit to Ivanovic, Antonio van Grichen, Zoltan Kuharsky, David Taylor and Craig Kardon have all come and gone, as well as a slew of fitness trainers.

Sears earlier turned down an approach from Ivanovic's camp when he was with the LTA.

"I always felt she was one of the players with a special ability because, after all, she's already been No. 1 in the world and a Grand Slam winner," Sears said in a phone interview. "If you worry about losing your job, you can't do the job properly. I never really worried about getting fired, and it didn't enter my head with Ana. Before you enter any of these things you go with your gut feeling, and if your gut feeling tells you it will work out, you go with it. That's how I've always worked."

When they first started together, there were good weeks of practice, while others "weren't great," according to Ivanovic. But she produced commendable results after some tweaks to her game.

Ivanovic reached the semifinals last summer in Carlsbad, Calif., didn't disgrace herself in a fourth-round loss to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open and ousted Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva back-to-back in Beijing before retiring with a back injury while leading an in-form Agnieszka Radwanska. Ivanovic repeated as champion in Bali.

Ivanovic ran into Petra Kvitova in the fourth round at the Australian Open in January, yet advanced to the semifinals in Indian Wells and the fourth round in Miami, where Venus Williams edged her in a three-setter.

More signs of progress: A loser to Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals in Dubai, Ivanovic crushed the Dane 6-3, 6-2 in Indian Wells several weeks later.

"Nigel and I, we always talk about matches before and after, and we analyze and see where we can improve," Ivanovic said. "Together with the coach, good or bad, it doesn't matter, you always learn, and it was proven in that match."

Players discuss matches with coaches often, but Ivanovic says her communication with Sears is different than with past taskmasters.

"A lot of coaches try to be very controlling and possessive in a way," Ivanovic said. "With Nigel it's a lot different. Obviously now I'm a lot older than when I started on tour. I'm more aware of what's helping me and what's not. Nigel is very encouraging in that sense because he always takes that into consideration. That's why I think we work really well together."

Sears focused on two key areas: the serve and forehand. Ivanovic's forehand was a consistent weapon feared by opponents in 2007 and '08, and her serve packed a decent punch.

Ivanovic's ball toss worsened over the years, though, leading to a spate of double faults that affected other parts of her game.

After altering the alignment of her shoulders and changing her rhythm, she's hit fewer double faults -- fewer per match in 2012 than in the previous three years.

"That's a pretty strong indicator of her confidence and level of comfort on court," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, a former world No. 3.

As for the forehand, Ivanovic needed to cut down on the unforced errors.

"That's the way I've tried to tackle it, to zone in on the two obvious technical areas that needed help and then to work on her returning to competing properly and playing tennis," the 55-year-old Sears said. "Then with that I felt sure that the confidence would return once she started winning, and winning important matches."

Shriver isn't surprised that Ivanovic has improved under Sears.

"I've known Nigel for almost 30 years now," she said. "He's a very experienced hand at coaching. Ana is nowhere near as anxious on court, and you can see she can get in the groove a little more."

With a keen interest in psychology, Ivanovic has always overanalyzed things -- on and off the court. She's trying, she says, to think less. It remains a work in progress.

But Ivanovic is in a better place than she has been for quite some time.

"When I started playing tournaments, it was always like a game for me," Ivanovic said. "I loved the tennis, then later on people were like, 'That's your work.' It changed completely the way I saw tennis and competition. It became a burden. Now I'm starting to enjoy it like when I first came on tour and it's so much nicer to play, and you can see that in a person. You move freer and you're happier."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

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