Leave it to a former player to recognize the awful thoughts swirling around in the head of a current one.
Ana Ivanovic was ahead 6-3, 3-1 against Maria Sharapova on Sunday in the Stuttgart final. The Serb was three games from beating the Russian for the first time since 2007 and driving off with her first champion’s Porsche. She had been residing deep in The Zone for the last hour; it didn’t look like Ana could have missed her forehand if she tried. This was the type of instinctive, swing-from-the-hip tennis that had led to her upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January.
Would she be able to hold her nerve the way she did in Melbourne? Serving at 3-1, Ivanovic caught an anxious, wayward toss at 15-0, but she followed it up with another first-ball forehand winner. All good, right? Not according to Tennis Channel commentator and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. As Ivanovic tossed the ball at 30-0, Davenport couldn’t keep her disbelief to herself any longer.
“It’s been almost seven years since Ivanovic had her last win over Sharapova,” Davenport said as Ana's first serve traveled straight into Sharapova’s forehand. “It’s tough to manufacture that kind of confidence when you go against a player that has dominated you.”
Just as Davenport finished her thought, Sharapova took Ivanovic’s mediocre, overly safe delivery and reflexed a forehand return winner down the line. It was as if both players had been listening to Davenport. No one knew it yet, but in that moment, the match had turned around completely. Two points later, Ivanovic walked to the line to serve at 40-30, one point from a 4-1 lead. She caught another wayward toss, but this time she didn’t give herself a chance to hit a forehand winner. Instead, Ivanovic double faulted.
“You can make a lot of a moment like that,” Davenport’s co-commentator Leif Shiras said of Ana's misfire, “if she fails to win this game.”
Shiras was right. On the next point, Ivanovic, for the first time in the match, sliced her backhand and played defensively. Her mind, unfortunately, had inserted itself into the rallies and shoved her attacking instincts aside. As Davenport predicted, it was too much to ask Ivanovic to ignore seven years of defeats. Sharapova broke with a forehand winner and saved a break point in the next game with a brilliant sliding backhand down the line. Her confidence, and her willingness to aim for the sidelines, grew from there. Ivanovic would win just two more games, as Sharapova went on to win her third straight title in Stuttgart—her dog must have its own Porsche by now.
More important, Sharapova also won her first tournament of 2014, and her first with coach Sven Groeneveld. She kept her ranking inside the Top 10 and will once again head to Madrid, Rome, and Paris as one of the contenders. And it all happened over the course of two games in Stuttgart.
Watching the inevitable unfold in the women’s final reminded me of how it hadn’t unfolded in the men’s quarterfinals in Barcelona two days earlier. There Nicolas Almagro played the role of Ivanovic when he faced Rafael Nadal, a man Almagro was trying to beat for the first time in 11 meetings. When Nadal broke Almagro to make it 4-4 in the third set, most people watching expected an Ana-like meltdown to ensue. Instead, Almagro loosened up and played his most fearless game of the match. You have to think that Nadal’s surprise loss the previous week in Monte Carlo to David Ferrer gave Almagro just a little more hope than normal. Enough hope, at least, to let the ball rip and see what happens.
Confidence and hope, we might conclude, form a double-edged sword in tennis: It’s virtually impossible to manufacture one, but we can always find a reason to grab onto the other.
We’ve been waiting impatiently for the post-Big 4 generation to arrive, but has it been sneaking up on us in 2014 unnoticed?
This weekend Kei Nishikori, 24, and Grigor Dimitrov, 22, each won titles and continued their steady progress up the rankings. Nishikori, with his victory at the 500-level event in Barcelona, is now No. 12. Dimitrov, with his victory at the 250-level event in Bucharest, is now No. 14. So far this season, Nishikori is 22-4, while Dimitrov is 20-6; each has won two tournaments. Dimitrov has a win over Andy Murray; Nishikori has a win over Roger Federer.
Over the years, the man from Japan and the man from Bulgaria have both taken the only road that seems available to ATP prodigies these days: The slow and bumpy one. Dimitrov, a former No. 1 junior and all-world talent, struggled mightily to realize his potential in his first years on tour. Nishikori has at times seemed content to make himself into a meal ticket for IMG, with sponsorships from his native Japan. While neither beat a Top 10 player last week, they did beat everyone they were supposed to beat, which is what being a permanent denizen of the upper echelon is really all about. If I were forced to make a prediction about their futures, I'd say Dimitrov, with his greater height and extravagant shot-making skill, is more likely to win a major.
While the Big 4 were away last week—Nadal lost in the Barcelona quarters; Murray, Federer, and Novak Djokovic were resting—Dimitrov and Nishikori showed that they could come out to play. The question is: Should that make us satisfied that the ATP's long-term future is in good hands, or should it make us impatient for more right now?