Finding Imperfection

by: Steve Tignor | March 15, 2011

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Ai INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Clichés come and, thankfully, they go. Ten or 15 years ago, we used to hear a lot about how one player “wanted it more.” That’s what coaches and friends and other assorted motivators told you before you walked on the court: “You’ve got to want it more than the other guy.” Somewhere along the line the phrase went the way of “I’m going to give 110 percent.” Apparently, just wanting something more than the person across the net isn’t quite enough for you to get it. These days, you have to hire a physio and a nutritionist, too.

But the battle of Serbs, Vitches, and Belgrade economist’s daughters that opened today’s play on a humid and mostly breezeless day at Indian Wells really did appear to come down to that: From first point to last, Ana Ivanovic very visibly wanted it more than Jelena Jankovic. Maybe “wanted” is the wrong word. They both obviously had a strong desire to win this one—that's what happens when you get two economists' little girls on the same tennis court. But only one was able to show that desire. The emotional climate out on Stadium 2 reminded me of many of the matchups between two other rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. One player monopolizes all of the energy in the arena, to the point where the other player can't grab any of it for his or her self. Today it was Ivanovic who played the role of the perpetually fired up Nadal. While she was loose and smiling for much of it, you could feel her tightly wound hunger to win this match coming off her in waves. (And that wasn't just because she's looked especially thin these days.)

Ivanovic fist-pumped, she twirled, she “ajde”d, she slapped her thigh, and she made sure she never stepped on a line. Except, of course, when superstition called on her to tap her big toe on the baseline just before she served.

“That’s her style, I guess,” Jankovic said of her opponent afterward. “She pumps herself up all the time. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. If you feel it, you know, if it really comes from the inside, spontaneously, it doesn’t get any better. I didn’t feel like I did something right that I could say, ‘Well done, you know, good job.’ I just didn’t have it.”

Jankovic never found it. From the beginning, she played tightly, passively, and maybe a little scared. “Emotionally I was flat,” she said, and for some reason that escaped her she wasn’t moving her feet. Which didn’t work out too well, because Ivanovic had her pinned back and on the run. Jankovic’s best shot, her backhand, was no match for Ivanovic’s best, her forehand. Jankovic couldn’t turn the tide of the rallies, but more important she couldn’t turn the emotional tide, couldn’t counter all those ajdes. Even when desperation should have been setting in, Jankovic appeared resigned. At 2-4 in the second set, she earned a break point, one of eight she would have on the day. Jankovic took control of the rally but Ivanovic hit a good dipping backhand pass to win it. I thought Jankovic would show at least a hint of frustration or disappointment afterward. But there was nothing on her face as she walked back to the baseline.

“I played some good tennis in the last few weeks,” an even-more-smiley-than-usual Ivanovic said afterward. “But to have it all the way through and play consistent on that level, I’m really pleased with. I wanted to get control of the rallies early because she doesn’t like that.”

Ivanovic certainly had it, she certainly had control of the rallies, and Jankovic didn’t like it at all. From my vantage point along the baseline, the difference in the weight of shot between the two players was striking. Ivanovic seemed to be able to take over a point at will. More important, once she got a hold of it, she was consistent enough to see it to its conclusion. Her crosscourt forehand, her down the line backhand, and especially her swing volley: She hit them all with an assured decisiveness. That last shot was something to see. Ivanovic seemed to relish going after the most difficult inside-out swing volley angles. I can’t remember her missing any. For any fan of hers, it must seem like very old times.

“Even when I was making mistakes, I didn’t let myself get down for it," she said. "I just wanted to be persistent and do the same thing over and over again.”

This philosophy of stubbornness applied most obviously to her serve today. It only took a couple of games before a toss flew out of her hands sideways, and they kept flying out in various directions at various times throughout the match. Nevertheless, it was her serve that bailed her out of a few tough holds and helped her beat back those eight break points, points that eventually left Jankovic discouraged. Who would have believed that Ana Ivanovic’s serve would bail her out of a big match in March 2011?

“If you start to think about technique going down the stairs,” Ivanovic said, repeating a good line she’s used before. “you’re gonna fall down. It’s the same with my serve. I became so technical about it that I forgot what I was doing and what feels natural. I have been doing it since I was 5, so I can do it. It’s just a matter of trusting it again.”

Ivanovic often calls herself a perfectionist, and she exudes a powerful desire to succeed, to the point where the thought of failure appears to paralyze her. Every champion has these traits, but every champion also knows how to get out their way—every champion knows how to walk down the stairs. At least for today, Ivanovic learned to do that as well. Against Jankovic, she had reconciled herself to imperfection. If a toss isn't exactly where it was supposed to be, you go out and get it anyway. That's what athletes do.

Along the way, Ivanovic may have accidentally hit upon a new weapon: the bad-toss, crazy-angle ace. On numerous occasions, her serve shot way out in front of her, but she still reached forward for it; how she didn’t foot-fault I have no idea. Often that reach allowed her to come up with an angle she wouldn’t have been able to create otherwise. They were angles that Jankovic had no answer for.

“Sometimes she would toss it way, you know, out of [control],” Jankovic said, “and then she would hit it, and you don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Serving at 5-2, Ivanovic predictably tightened up and flipped two routine backhands into the net. At 0-30, she sent her toss way out to her right. But she still smacked a low-lining ace wide. Ivanovic went on to close out the match on her serve. She had done it by following the advice of another cliché. She hadn't let the perfect get in the way of the (very) good.    

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