by Pete Bodo
Miami — It’s a good thing that female tennis pros don’t get as bent out of shape as conventional fashionistas when a woman wearing the same dress shows up at an event — in this case, the Sony-Ericsson Open, where No. 15 seed Ana Ivanovic played Daniela Hantuchova late this afternoon in a third-round match.
Both women wore a pretty, slinky adidas number. The color was orange sherbet, but with trim as hot as the flame decals on the gas tank of a Harley-Davidson. That Ivanovic and Hantuchova are actually paid to wear the dress, instead of the other way around, presumably blunted the pain of being attired identically.
These are, after all, pros.
Asked about the non-coincidence, Ivanovic said, “Yeah, it's pretty funny. We were joking, (but) at least one was blonde (Hantuchova) and one was brunette. It would be problem if I played Sorana (Cirstea, another brunette who wears adidas). But, no, it is a little bit strange. You look up and you see yourself.”
In more ways than one.
Hantuchova has never been No. 1, nor won a Grand Slam title — both accomplishments of Ivanovic’s in 2008, which is another geological age in WTA time. But Hantuchova had great promise in an earlier time as well, as well as persistent problems of her own.
Hantuchova has hung in there as a dangerous player (you can ask Caroline Wozniacki about that; just say “French Open, 2011”) yet she’s been flaky and erratic, unable to capitalize on great opportunities or to string together tight, error-free matches anywhere but in the California desert (oddly, she’s won the big Indian Wells tournament twice).
This profile makes her a particularly dangerous opponent for anyone, and particularly Ivanovic, who has diligently tried to reclaim her place at the top ever since her relatively swift fall from grace. It’s been a two-steps forward, one-step back process, although lately her progress has been relatively steady — she’s now up to No. 16.
This was exactly the kind of match Ivanovic needs to win on a regular basis to continue an an upward arc, and the kind of opponent against whom she needs to bring her A-game, even if it looked like just another second-round tussle more or less lost in the shuffle of Venus Williams heroics, Rafael Nadal bolo forehands, and Roger Federer practice sightings.
“I knew from the beginning that it will be, you know, very tough third round, I think for both of us.” Ivanovic said, after she won it, 6-2, 7-6 (2). “We played a lot of times in the past (Ivanovic led 4-2 going in, half of the matches decided in three sets). We always have tough matches. Even in practice, it's always, you know, tight. So I really tried to stay calm and work and concentrate on what I was doing out there.”
She added, “She's tricky player. She has improved her forehand. I think she has more on it. Her backhand has always been her better shot. She definitely — if you feel her hit, she can hit very, very strong and deep.”
Hantuchova can also hit it very out, which is more or less how things played out.
Ivanovic wrapped up the first set with ease, showing a lot of poise and milking enough errors out of Hantuchova to earn five break points, converting three. Then, by her own admission, she became a little impatient, eager to get to the finish line.
“I think I started to rush a little more in the second. . . I wanted to rush and rush. I was focused more on the end result rather than in the moment — what I was doing and then I lost a bit of rhythm on my serve. But I'm really happy that I managed to keep composed and then win the tiebreaker.”
Hantuchova played a significant role in Ivanovic’s success in the tie breaker. She began spraying and wrenching the ball all over the court; she became a WTA hard-case reverting to head-case, falling behind 0-4, after which the closest she came was 2-4. It may not have been a masterpiece by Ivanovic, but she humbly said, “It was a very, very important win for me today.”
That’s the mission for Ivanovic at this point. To win matches like this one, day-to-day. It’s hard work, and not always entirely glamorous work no matter what you think. And it can be especially daunting when things aren’t going as well as she would like and her career seems like one long anxiety dream. Is it hard to keep the faith?
"It is difficult, especially because I'm a perfectionist. I always want to do everything the right way, and I always wanted to make everything perfect,” she admitted. “When it's not happening, you start to, you know, doubt and start to question so many things. And to analyze.
“Sometimes that's not good. You try to make quick fixes and you try. . . like I was expecting, you know, it to come back like so easy and so fast.
“But unless you really put your head down and just take it day by day and actually enjoy the process and, you know, understand that it might not happen as fast as you hope (then it gets better). I'm going to keep at it. I'm going to be persistent as long as it takes.”
Ivanovic won’t have to worry about her next opponent wearing the same dress; Venus Williams has her own label — and seven Grand Slam titles. And, at 31 and often injured, she also knows what it’s like to really put her head down and just take it day by day.